CIBI Annual Lecture 2007
CONTEMPLATION AND THE CARMELITE RULE
My task is to speak about the topic of contemplation and the Carmelite Rule. My approach will be to try to understand this issue from the standpoint of our spiritual lives today but first we must briefly mention some history. The "Formula vitae", written by St. Albert of Jerusalem between 1206-1214, is in the form of a letter and it is based on the "propositum", or proposal of the hermits on Mount Carmel. It is rather like what happens in our day when an Order asks for a letter from the Pope for some major event. Normally the Order will make a proposal, sending some suggestions on which the Pope might base his letter. Of course the Pope is completely free to reject the proposal and write something completely different. However, presumably in a normal case, the papal letter will be based on the proposal received from the Order.
We know that St. Albert based what he wrote on the proposal received from the hermits, because he tells us so: It is to me, however, that you have come for a rule of life in keeping with your avowed purpose (Rule, 3). We can make guesses about what was in the proposal and what comes rather from Albert's own experience but we cannot be sure exactly where each idea comes from. Unfortunately we do not possess a copy of the “formula vitae” written by St. Albert. The earliest text of the Rule we possess is from the papal bull, "Quae Conditoris" of Innocent IV in 1247. Pope Innocent gave this bull in response to a request from the Carmelites to adapt the "Formula Vitae" so that they might have a bit more flexibility in regard to their way of life. It is possible to discern what was written by St. Albert and what was added by the Pope. However, the only text of the Carmelite Rule that exists is that of 1247. With the bull, the "Formula Vitae" becomes an official Rule, recognised by the Church and the Carmelite lay hermits became consecrated religious.
THRUST OF THE RULE
The "Formula Vitae", as is well known, was written at the request of hermits to give official structure to their lives. Pope Innocent IV made some small but significant additions to allow the hermits to become consecrated religious and open foundations in the new cities springing up in Europe. These changes profoundly affected the course that the Carmelite Order would take but they did not profoundly alter its spirituality. The men seeking God in the silence of the cave and in community, listening to the Word of God, and celebrating the Eucharist together, would do so from then on mostly in a new setting. The majority of the brothers would live in the midst of the city but they brought Mount Carmel with them wherever they went. These changes of course did not take place without some internal problems, as is evident from the Ignea Sagitta of the Prior General, Nicholas the Gaul in the 13th century. The Prior General deplores a situation in which Carmelites have left Mount Carmel and flung themselves headlong into active apostolates in cities without adequate preparation.
The present Constitutions of the O.Carm cloistered nuns state, “Since its arrival in Europe in the 13th century, the Order had some women united to its spirit in a particular way and who soon committed their lives with the same religious vows as the men of the Order were then doing. The papal document ‘Cum Nulla’ of Nicholas V (1452), while it approved a situation already in existence, laid the basis for an orderly development of the feminine branch of Carmel so that the ‘Blessed Mother of God might be venerated by the women religious, as she was by the men of the Order”. From small beginnings there has arisen a worldwide movement of women dedicated to the service of God and their neighbour by living joyful lives of prayer and penance. This way of life has produced many saintly women, most of whom remain unknown except to God. However, the most famous member of the cloistered Carmelite movement is the great St. Teresa of Jesus, who took the traditional elements and with great ingenuity reworked them for her many foundations. Living in an age of great ferment and upheaval, she incorporated the best of the past in a fresh and creative vision of the contemplative life, a vision, which now influences all Carmelite nuns. Indeed all Carmelite women and men look to St. Teresa as an unparalleled source of inspiration and guide for the spiritual life. In the Constitutions of the O.Carm nuns, the words of St. Teresa are used to express the call, which they have received from God, “we feel ourselves ‘called to prayer and contemplation. This call explains our origin; we are the descendents of men who felt this call, of those holy fathers on Mount Carmel who in such great solitude and contempt for the world sought this treasure, this precious pearl of contemplation’.This bears witness that the spirituality of the Order, though the majority of its members at the time were involved in active apostolic works, was still essentially contemplative.
The Order has always considered that contemplation lies at the heart of our vocation. The Institutio Primorum Monachorum, from the late 14th century, which for hundreds of years was the formation document for all young Carmelites, say this - “The goal of this life is twofold: One part …… is to offer God a heart that is holy and pure from actual stain of sin. …..The other goal of this life is granted to us as the free gift of God; …..to taste somewhat in the heart and to experience in the mind the power of the divine presence and the sweetness of heavenly glory.
The tradition of the Order has always interpreted the Rule and the founding charism as expressions of the contemplative dimension of life, and the great spiritual teachers of the Carmelite Family have always returned to this contemplative vocation.
TRANSFORMATION IN CHRIST
The guiding principle of the Carmelite Rule is transformation in Christ. The process of transformation is a gradual growth of the human person in the image and likeness of God and is a constant factor in the mystical tradition. By allowing the values of the Rule to form our lives, we will be gradually transformed so that we become a new creation in Christ. There are many ways of incarnating the Rule. There are still hermits who live it, friars, enclosed nuns, active sisters and very many lay people. All Carmelites are fundamentally called to the same vocation, although they must live it in very different ways. Christ made very clear what were the conditions of following him. Those who wish to follow him must lose their lives so that they might save them. Our human ways of thinking, loving and acting, which are limited, must be transformed into divine ways, which are infinite. In other words, the Christian vocation is to become like Christ, the image of the invisible God.
The words “contemplation” or “contemplative prayer” do not appear in the Rule. Instead other terms appear like, “pondering (or meditating on) the Lord's law day and night” (10); “your breast fortified by holy meditations” (19); “The sword of the spirit, the word of God, must abound in your mouths and hearts” (19); “The Apostle would have us keep silence, for in silence he tells us to work. As the Prophet also makes known to us: Silence is the way to foster justice. Elsewhere he says: Your strength will lie in silence and hope” (21); “employ every care in keeping silent which is the way to foster justice” (21). All of these are directed towards transformation in Christ.
The way of prayer, which is not so much taught but assumed in the Carmelite Rule and which permeates the whole of it, is Lectio Divina. This way of prayer was practiced for hundreds of years before any attempt was made to define it. It was intended to move towards contemplation. It was the way of prayer that had been used by the early monks for centuries before Guigo II the Carthusian, wrote in the 12th century of the famous four stages or phases of Lectio Divina (reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation). With the rise of scholasticism and the tendency to divide and examine each element in isolation from the others, the natural flow of Lectio Divina towards contemplation became stuck in the area of discursive meditation. All sorts of methods of meditation were laboriously worked out and contemplation tended to be reserved for an elite group within the Church. It was generally thought to be out of reach of ordinary people and indeed dangerous for them. This tendency was reinforced by various movements that arose rejecting the sacramental, hierarchical, institutional Church for a nebulous individual illumination, which exempted individuals even from basic Christian morality. Despite this anti-contemplative milieu, great mystical writers flourished at different periods – e.g. Mechtilde of Magdeburg & Meister Eckhart (13th century), John Tauler, Henry Suso, Ruysbroek and the anonymous English author of the Cloud of Unknowing (14th century) and John and Teresa (16th century).
At the time of the writing of the Rule, there was not much concern about defining stages of prayer. Guigo's four steps of reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation were intended as teaching aids for young people who joined monastic communities; they were never intended to be hard and fast definitions. Lectio Divina was the normal way of prayer for monks and hermits and it was intended to lead to transformation in Christ. That is the point of all authentic ways of prayer or indeed of any Rule. By living faithfully the values of the Rule, we are gradually being transformed in Christ to become what God has created us to be.
The Rule does not teach contemplative prayer; no one can teach contemplative prayer. Lectio Divina forms the background of prayer in the Rule. It was never just a way of prayer; it was and is a way of life. The four phases of Lectio Divina - reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation - flow in and out of each other and form a seamless whole. The hermits did not have four separate times during which they read the Scriptures, meditated on them, prayed about them and then contemplated. They read the Word of God while alone in their cells and while together for meals and for the celebration of the Eucharist or for the recitation of the psalms. Those who could not read, recited the Our Father, of course a Scriptural prayer. They meditated on the Word of God, murmuring the words over and over in their cells or at work outside until the Word became part of them. This led spontaneously to prayer arising from the heart as a response to the Word that they heard. The response could be thanksgiving, repentance, praise or whatever. Contemplative moments could emerge at any point during the day when God took over and the hermits let go of their own words, their own thoughts, their own emotions.
Meditation at this time had nothing to do with discursive thinking about God and the things of God; instead it was a practice whereby the whole body became involved in the prayer. The hermits would murmur the words of the psalms, or even shout them out (hence the need for separate caves on Mt. Carmel). The hermits repeated them over and over until such times as the words took root within them and these words would come spontaneously to mind during their daily work. Clearly St. Albert had meditated long on the Word of God because the Rule is full of Scriptural allusions and direct quotes. The Word of God is part of him and so becomes the heart of the Rule which he wrote. It was the heart of the life that the hermits felt called to follow and which they proposed to Albert.
Our way of praying is different from that of those first hermits because our life is different but the goal is the same. The concept of contemplation has been deeply affected by the history of spirituality. The word “contemplatio” is the Latin rendering of the Greek “theoria”, which is an attempt to translate the Hebrew “da’ath”, referring to a loving knowledge of God. The word “contemplation” in the strict sense does not appear in the Scriptures but if we understand contemplation as the search for union with God, then clearly the whole Bible is focused on this – the human and divine relationship. Pope Gregory the Great summed up the teaching of the preceding six Christian centuries by emphasising the role of love and knowledge in the work of contemplation. According to Gregory the Great, “The fundamental preparation for contemplation, of course, is the devout living of the Christian life through the power of the Holy Spirit expressed in the virtues of faith, hope and charity and the increasing activity of the sevenfold gift” The supreme value of Christianity is not contemplation but love. Contemplation is not an end in itself; it is a means to arrive at union with God. Contemplation is not the reward for great virtue or much time spent in prayer but is that which makes us capable of great virtue, of great love. However the readiness to encounter God immediately and directly in contemplation normally presupposes perseverance at some discursive prayer for a considerable length of time.
As a result of various historical factors, contemplation came to be looked upon with grave suspicion. We know the difficulties, which both St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa had with the Inquisition because of the general suspicion that surrounded contemplation. This suspicion lasted for about 400 years and some of the effects are still with us. One of the most grave effects was that contemplation was cut off from the vast majority of the Christian people and was reserved for an elite group. There was no teaching or preaching about the goal of Christian prayer and most people had never heard of contemplation. This has been partly remedied in recent years with the upsurge of interest in prayer and a rediscovery of the great contemplative tradition within Christianity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church understands prayer as primarily a relationship with God and only secondly as a specific activity. The Catechism describes contemplation in the following ways:
Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the child of God, of the forgiven sinner who agrees to welcome the love by which he is loved and who wants to respond to it by loving even more. But he knows that the love he is returning is poured out by the Spirit in his heart, for everything is grace from God. Contemplative prayer is the poor and humble surrender to the loving will of the Father in ever deeper union with his beloved Son.
Contemplative prayer is the simplest expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty. Contemplative prayer is a covenant relationship established by God within our hearts. Contemplative prayer is a communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, "to his likeness."
Contemplative prayer is silence, the "symbol of the world to come" or "silent love." Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the "outer" man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus.
Contemplation is the irruption of God in the human soul. It is a silent, imageless and loving communion with God that transcends all discursiveness. According to St. John of the Cross, “Contemplation is none other than a secret, peaceful and loving infusion of God, which if the soul allows it to happen, enflames it in the spirit of love.” “Secret contemplation .. is a science of love … which is an infused loving knowledge that both illuminates and enamours the soul, elevating it step by step unto God its Creator.” It is clear that contemplation is infused, i.e. it comes from God and cannot be grasped by us. “So delicate is this interior refreshment that ordinarily if one desires it or tries to experience it, it will not be experienced; because, as I say, it does its work when the soul is most at rest and most free from care; it is like the air which, if one desires to close one’s hand upon it, escapes.” Contemplation is a kind of being to being conversation with no intermediary and no possibility of misunderstanding the communication. In contemplation, God does not come through the senses or through the normal pattern of knowing. God comes from an unknown way infusing directly into our being a loving knowledge of God.
The goal of our prayer is the same as that of the first hermits on Mount Carmel. We seek to pray unceasingly: Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty. (Rule 10). We seek to live in the presence of God, to be so in tune with God that everything we do or say or think is according to the will of God. The Rule puts it this way, The sword of the spirit, the word of God, must abound in your mouths and hearts. Let all you do have the Lord's word for accompaniment (Rule 19). In this way we are gradually being transformed in Christ.
THE PATH OF PRAYER
St. John of the Cross wrote, commenting on the process of Lectio Divina, that we seek in reading and we find in meditation; we knock in prayer and it is opened to us in contemplation. The first three elements are active - what we can do - and the last, contemplation is passive - what God does. Contemplation is not confined to a specific time of prayer. According to John, contemplation begins with the dark night of sense, which is not at all an elevated state. Contemplation then begins when we take the spiritual journey seriously and with our whole heart try to respond to God's invitation to intimacy. This necessarily involves us in withdrawing from certain other good things. This withdrawal can cause a certain darkness within us. If we are faithful at this time, God then draws us further and begins to take over the process of transforming us in Christ. At the beginning stages we are still very active, avoiding sin, doing good works, saying our prayers and so on but as the relationship with God develops into a firm friendship, we depend less on ourselves and trust more in God. We have very many lessons to learn on this journey and many ways of acting to unlearn. There are many potholes on this road and also many interesting deviations from the straight and narrow path. It is not easy to stay on the path that leads to life, especially when darkness falls. St. John of the Cross teaches very clearly that this is a way of faith, which means to trust in God even when the purely human reasons for trust are taken away from us.
As we are growing in intimacy with God, our prayer begins to change. There is a subtle and gradual movement from our effort to God's work. Of course God is at work in any authentic prayer but as we grow in intimacy with God so God gradually begins to take over the steering wheel. The driver obviously determines where the car goes. If we try to interfere with the driving, we will crash. It is important to determine who is going to drive the car. If we simply let go of the steering wheel and God does not take over, we will also crash. At this point, we must take into account the famous three signs of John of the Cross. These are signs pointing to when a person ought to let go of the steering wheel and let God take over, and so give up discursive meditation and pass on to the state of contemplation. The first sign is the realisation that one cannot make discursive meditation nor receive satisfaction from it as before. Dryness is the outcome of trying to fix the senses upon subjects that formerly gave satisfaction. The second sign is an awareness of a disinclination to fix the imagination upon particular objects, exterior or interior. The third and surest sign is that a person likes to remain alone in loving awareness of God, without particular considerations in interior peace and quiet and repose and without the acts and exercises (at least discursive, those in which one progresses from point to point) of the intellect, memory and will.16 In the book of the Dark Night, the three signs are given from another perspective, that of judging whether the dryness that a person is experiencing comes from God's action or not.
Those three signs are written with a particular understanding of discursive meditation, which of course was very different from the type of meditation practiced by the hermits on Mount Carmel. I doubt whether many people actually use discursive meditation any more. However, I think that the term “meditation” in John's understanding includes any kind of prayer where we remain active in some sense. After active prayer, no matter how gentle this activity may be, comes contemplation, which is a peaceful and loving inflow of God into the soul. Contemplation is the work of God, not ours. God determines when and if it happens, not us. We can and must prepare ourselves in every way we can for the gift of God, when and if God wishes to give it to us.
Because of the suspicion that was cast on contemplation and which remained in the Church for several centuries, most people were actively discouraged from any kind of silent prayer. St. Teresa in the "Way of Perfection" showed how one could become a great contemplative by reciting the Our Father. God cannot be defeated by human regulations.
LISTENING TO GOD
The medieval mind was rather different to ours. Our modern mind is always thinking things out, planning for the future, dwelling on the past. Our minds do not stop; we have an internal tape or cd that accompanies us throughout the day with incessant noise. We are either commenting on this or reacting to that. Often our prayer is simply part of this incessant noise and is not truly an opening of our whole being to the Living God. We want to follow our own agenda instead of responding to the gentle invitation of God to enter into the intimate life of the Blessed Trinity. The central point of Christianity is that we are called into an intimate relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ. In this relationship we are transformed and become what God knows we can be - like God, able to see creation with the eyes of God and love creation with God's heart.
For any successful human relationship, we must take time simply to be with the other and listen deeply to the other. However, we are not very good at really listening. We hear what we want to hear; we filter what is said to us through the sieve of our own agenda. We have difficulty hearing the other because of the constant noise inside ourselves. If we do this in daily life, we do it also at the time of prayer. Part of the transformation process is that our human and therefore limited ways of thinking and loving must be transformed into divine ways. When we read or meditate or even when we speak spontaneously to God, we are in control and it is very difficult for us to let go so that God can take over. St. John of the Cross wrote that God spoke one word and that word was His Son; this Word God repeats in an eternal silence and in silence must it ever be heard by the soul. Lectio Divina moves towards silence, and this silence is the best way of receiving the gift of contemplation. When our words and our beautiful thoughts are no longer sufficient, only silence can give an adequate response to the Word of God and only with an interior silence can we listen to God.
For Carmelites, silence is a very important virtue. From our Rule, we know that silence is the way to foster justice or holiness. (Rule 21). Words and actions that do not come from a silent heart are bound to lead to injustice and simply add to the problems of the world and not to their solution. By silence I do not mean when we are not talking because we are watching television. We must have a solid practice of daily prayer in which silence is an important element. Lectio divina is a practice hallowed by many centuries of use. In this method, there is a time to read, a time to meditate on what we have read, a time to respond to what we have read and then a time when we put down the Bible and let go even of our own holy words and thoughts when we allow the Word of God to take hold of our hearts. What is false within us hates silence because the silence puts the spotlight on it and so there will always be the temptation to fill the silence with words or thoughts, anything at all will do as long as it distracts us from this terrible silence!
Silence is the ambience in which contemplation flourishes. As John of the Cross wrote “What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetites and our tongue, for the language He best hears is silent love”. The mere absence of thoughts, emotions, activity or distractions does not constitute prayer of any kind. As Thomas Merton wrote, “An emptiness that is deliberately cultivated, for the sake of fulfilling a personal spiritual ambition, is not empty at all: it is full of itself. It is so full that the light of God cannot get into it anywhere.” However progress in prayer is often characterised by the gradual transformation of many words and thoughts into the simplicity of loving surrender.
We need to learn how to become silent. The first fruit of authentic prayer is self-knowledge, which always remains an essential part of a healthy spiritual life. We cannot come to know God without learning a great deal about ourselves and often this is very painful. When we learn some painful facts about ourselves, we must try to do something about them. Our prayer will not go well if we refuse to give up some sin. “No matter how high your contemplation may be, seek always to begin and end your prayer with the knowledge of yourselves,”
A Christian contemplative is a mature friend of Jesus Christ. One who has been through various ups and down and who is now established in a firm and profound relationship with him. It is not static - very far from it - it is always moving and developing. When we come to this point, then our lives become really fruitful because they now are according to the mind and heart of God. We see with God's eyes and love with God's heart.
Contemplation is God's gift. We cannot demand to become God's intimate friends. No friendship can be forced. God is completely sovereign but we know from the Scriptures that God invites us into the life of the Trinity. Many of the Fathers of the Church stressed that God became one of us so that we might become God. No more profound vocation could be given to us.
Contemplation is not some esoteric experience of bliss. It is a process of maturing. The process of contemplation changes the human ways of thinking, loving and acting into divine ways. Our human ways are very limited and so when we read the Word of God, we are limited by our experience of life and by many other factors. It is said that one can find in the Bible reasons to support any position. An example of this is the huge number of little churches all claiming the Bible as their source. It is therefore not sufficient just to read the Bible; our way of looking at things must be purified. When we meditate on the Word of God, we try to understand its meaning and what message it may have for our lives but when we do this, we are still limited. Our little world must be enlarged and our minds reformed according to the mind of Christ. When we pray from the heart, we are still using human words. Our words and thoughts, no matter how beautiful, are still human words and thoughts and it is therefore necessary that they too be purified by the Word of God. The light of God's Word shines a powerful light into the dark corners of our heart. It is very difficult to accept what becomes clear in the light but if we do, we can be set free to become what God knows we can be.
At times prayer can become boring and we can be tempted to give it up. The reason for our boredom at prayer could be personal sin, lukewarmness or an inability to listen. However, it might also be a call from God to move on to another way of relating. This is where we move from friendliness into friendship. There are normally various crises before we become firmly established in a true friendship. We know from St. Teresa that God sometimes treats His friends in a strange way.
The dark night, a concept connected forever with the name of St. John of the Cross is a moment of transition into an intimate and lasting friendship and it can go on for many years. The experience is different for everyone because each relationship is unique. Fundamentally what the dark night experience is all about is that we are invited to leave a way of relating to God where we were in control and move into a new land where God leads us. The dark night is a very normal experience that takes place both in prayer and in daily life. Our meditations and our holy thoughts can only take us so far; at some point we have to let go and trust God to take us further. If our experience of meditation had always been profound and full of devotion, we would never give it up. So God will dry up this source in order to feed us in another way but because we are not used to this other way, we begin to complain bitterly. Reading the Bible at this time is like reading the telephone book. Our profound thoughts on the mysteries of the faith are a distant memory. We cannot raise a single holy thought or holy feeling. Often we also come across various difficulties in our ministry or home life.
The journey of transformation is normally long with many twists and turns as all that is false within us is gradually transformed into Christ. The dark night is a great blessing from God. It is the time when God is reaching into the hidden places of our hearts in order to transform us completely. The dark night is not dark at all. On the contrary, it is very bright, too bright for us and so it seems to be dark.
This is a crucial time on the spiritual journey. Many give up and turn back because they do not understand what is going on. If we are really trying our best, despite our many sins, and are faithful to prayer, it is very likely that all this darkness is a result of God's action, to lead us out of spiritual immaturity towards becoming His mature friends. There is a great revolution, which takes place in the spiritual life when we finally discover and accept that God is not part of our world but we are part of God's world.
It is critical at this time just to wait on God and to listen for the sound of God's voice which often comes to us in very surprising ways and by means of very surprising people. Albert wrote his “formula vitae” to the hermits who lived beside the spring. This is the spring of the prophet Elijah and the hermits must have been aware of his great example. In the stories in the books of the Kings we see Elijah experiencing great success, then failure. He makes his journey through the desert to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God to rekindle his faith. There he encounters God not in any expected way but in the sound of sheer silence. We too have to be prepared to receive God as God wishes to approach us and therefore we must develop a listening heart.
In contemplation our normal ways of knowing and understanding are stilled and at first there can be the feeling of anxiety that we are doing nothing. So contemplation is a strange new land where everything natural to us seems to be turned upside down, where we learn a new language, the language of silence. We learn a new way of being, not to be always doing but simply to be, where our thoughts and concepts, our imagination, senses and feelings are abandoned for faith in what is unseen and unfelt, where God's seeming absence to our senses is God's presence and God's silence to our ordinary perception is God's speech. It is entering into the unknown, letting go of everything familiar we would cling to for security. Entering this new land at first is like entering darkness and emptiness. It is entering into a process, which is a kind of death but this is the death that Jesus tells us leads to life.
Contemplation begins when we entrust ourselves to God, in whatever way God chooses to approach us. Prayer is the door to contemplation and without prayer we cannot hope to lead any kind of spiritual life. I am convinced, however, that contemplation is much more than prayer but the heart of the matter is prayer. It is a process of transformation, which leads the human being to become a new creation by being transformed in God.
We do not start the spiritual journey as already transformed. We are marked by our fallen nature and so there is a selfish part of us no matter how holy we may feel or may appear to others. St. John of the Cross points out the many faults of the beginner in his book, “The Dark Night” so that he or she will realise that perfection is still a long way off. We can be totally focused on the fulfilment of our own selfish needs and desires, without really being aware of this. It is vital to understand that we do not become holy simply because we begin to take God seriously. The selfish part of us is quite happy when we take religion seriously so long as it can use its new surroundings to fulfil its own desires.
We will be tested often and the reason for this testing is that we need to be purified so that we will be able to serve others from a pure heart. However, we do not begin the journey with a pure heart; it is a gradual process. Therefore very often our prayer will be dry but that does not mean that God is not talking to us. God normally speaks outside the time of prayer in the midst of our daily life. The contemplative process is much wider than the time we give to prayer but we cannot claim to be contemplatives unless spending time alone with God is an important part of our lives. It is during this time that God gradually purifies our spiritual senses so that we will be able to discern God's voice in the midst of the many other voices we hear each day. Sometimes God speaks words of consolation to us but sometimes God will point out to us something that needs to be changed. It is vital that we accept this and do something about it otherwise we will not grow. Of course the selfishness within us will use all sorts of arguments for not changing and these will sound very reasonable.
The human heart is very subtle and requires a profound purification. This is the purpose of the contemplative journey. As we grow more and more in the likeness of Christ, we learn to see ourselves as we really are. To be a contemplative means to have penetrated the mystery of God by loving knowledge. This is the gift of God and the result of God's purifying and transforming action within the human being.
The call to contemplation is not for the faint hearted; it is not for those who seek spiritual experiences. Contemplation leads to death, the death of all that is false within us, which is in fact a liberation but which must be experienced as death first of all. Thomas Merton described contemplation in the following terms:
If we set out into this darkness, we have to meet these inexorable forces. We will have to face fears and doubts. We will have to call into question the whole structure of our spiritual life. We will have to make a new evaluation of our motives for belief, for love, for self-commitment to the invisible God. At this moment precisely all spiritual light is darkened, all values lose their shape and reality, and we remain so to speak, suspended in the void.
As God reveals to us the hidden motivation of our hearts, we discover that our faith, hope and love are in need of radical purification. Our reasons for believing, hoping and loving seem no longer to be valid, or at least no longer sufficient. At the beginning we will have given ourselves to God as we perceive God to be. We will build up a structure for our spiritual lives, a structure with which we feel comfortable and which supports our image of who God is and what it means to lead a spiritual life. At a certain point this structure will begin to shake because it is in fact built on sand. It seems that if we seriously desire to stand in the truth, our faith, hope and love must be utterly purified. God may seem to disappear and leave us in a more profound darkness than we have ever experienced before. We cannot turn away from God even though we may feel that God has turned away from us. We cannot go backwards and yet we cannot seem to go forwards.
The reason for this experience, I would hazard to suggest, is that there is no point in replacing one set of human reasons for faith, hope and love with another set no matter how deep these latter may be. The only valid foundation for surrendering oneself into the hands of the Invisible God is simply that God is. In God's time the darkness will reveal itself as God's presence.
The contemplative path is not a series of sublime spiritual experiences but involves the stripping of all that is false so that one stands in the Truth. At times this may involve anguish and doubt but there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can compare to the gift of God, which is given to those who truly consent to God's presence and action. The contemplative path is a process of dying and rising. Without the death of the false self there can be no resurrection. The resurrection is pure gift; there is nothing the human being can do to earn it. We can only wait in the darkness trusting that it is God's good pleasure to give us the Kingdom (Lk. 12,32).
The acid test of progress on the spiritual journey is whether we are becoming better human beings. How we actually treat other people is the testing ground of the authenticity of the transformation, which is taking place within us. We cannot make progress in the life of prayer unless we progress in the love of God and a very practical love of neighbour. Teresa sought to make progress in the love of God and neighbour. She wrote "when I see people very diligently trying to discover what kind of prayer they are experiencing and so completely wrapped up in their prayers that they seem afraid to stir, or indulge in a moment's thought, lest they should lose the slightest degree of the tenderness and devotion which they had been feeling, I realise how little they understand of the road to the attainment of union. They think that the whole thing consists in this. But no, sisters, no; what the Lord desires is works." John says in one of his maxims, "He that loves not his neighbour abhors God."
Transformation is not just a change of one or two externals; it is a profound change of what motivates us in daily life. Our motivation is often hidden from us but it determines how we act and react throughout the day. It is this motivation that has to be purified at some point on our journey. Our external behaviour may be angelic or it may be a crucifixion to ourselves and/or to others but we really cannot change very much until such times as we have changed the root cause. Changing external behaviour is often necessary but no change will last unless the underlying motive is also changed. The latter is much more difficult.
The Carmelite Rule does not teach contemplative prayer; it prepares the way for it. The Rule provides the elements of a spiritually healthy way of life that leads people towards transformation in Christ. The Rule, as we have said, assumes the rhythm of Lectio Divina, which leads towards contemplation. We can decide to read the Word of God and to ponder on it. Our response to the Word is usually spontaneous and the fruit of what has gone before but nevertheless we are still in control. Contemplative prayer happens to us. We have no control when it comes to contemplative prayer. This is God's action and we are put to sleep in a sense while God, the great Physician, operates deep within us to transform those hidden recesses of our hearts into the image of Christ. The process of contemplation goes on in daily life but reaches a high point in contemplative prayer. At the beginning contemplation is so vague and so gentle that the individual will normally be unaware that anything unusual is taking place. In a few people this awareness grows enormously and we can see the results of this contemplative awareness in the abundance of mystical literature throughout the centuries. We are very fortunate in Carmel to have several men and women who have received the gift of contemplation as well as the gift of being able to describe their experience for the benefit of others.
Contemplation is a pure gift of God. Like salvation, it cannot be merited. God is not an idol whom we can control by means of the right ritual. We cannot force God to grant us the gift of contemplation, in the final stages of which, we are united with God in a way that words cannot express and our understanding cannot grasp: “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”