CIBI Annual Lecture 2010
The Carmelite Tradition Speaks to Us Today
by Kevin Culligan, O.C.D.
Thank you for the invitation to address you this afternoon on the topic, “The Carmelite Tradition Speaks to Us Today.” Your invitation honors me, not only as a member of your counterparts – the Carmelite Forum and the Carmelite Institute -- in the United States, but also as a charter member of the Washington Province's Institute of Carmelite Studies, which I am proud to announce, celebrates its 45th anniversary next Spring at our provincial chapter.
Your invitation also honors me because I am a Culligan. Seven of my eight great-grandparents came to America from Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century: Thomas Culligan from Clare, William Harrington from Tullamore, Dennis Courtney from Kerry, Bridget Guinan from Athlone, Patrick O'Leary and Bridget Sullivan from Cork, and Hannah Syses from, we think, Mayo. My eighth great- grand parent, Ann Kelly, was born in Peru, Illinois, but with a name like that you know that her family too originated in Ireland. I also claim a relationship with the great seventeenth-century Franciscan historian and hagiographer from Donegal, John Colgan, although probably in name only: Culligan and Colgan apparently derive from the same Gaelic name, O'Quilligan. Moreover, my first contact with Teresian Carmel came through Irish friars who staffed El Carmelo Retreat House in Redlands California, located only fifteen miles from our family home – Patrick Collins, Enda Somers, Dominic O'Callaghan, John Lysaght. I remember vividly the impression these men made on me as an eighteen- year-old lad wondering about a religious vocation. I recall saying to myself: “I think I could be very happy living with these men.” I still feel deeply connected in spirit with all these Irish men and Irish women. Your invitation is a tribute to them as well. But probably the greatest honor of all is that, even after I lived with you in your communities during my eight-month sabbatical in 1981-82, you still invite me back to speak with you on this important topic.
You have asked me to talk on how the Carmelite tradition speaks to us today, not in a general way, but specifically on “what does Carmel say to the brokenness of our modern world,” particularly the brokenness you are currently experiencing here in Ireland as a result of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the economic downturn in the fallout of the global financial recession, and the decline in religious practice and even faith among the Irish people. Can Carmel, from its eight-century tradition, offer understanding, consolation, healing, and hope in the face of these distressing issues? This is the challenge you have placed before me today. To speak for a moment only of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, can we imagine a more devastating tragedy in the life of the church? Clergy and religious have betrayed the trust of innocent children and unsuspecting parents. Church leaders, for whatever good motives they offered to condone their response, have acted unjustly. Survivors bear lasting emotional, spiritual, and physical effects which have plagued them throughout their entire lives. And the church as a moral teacher has lost its credibility, especially when it speaks on such topics as the sanctity of marriage and family or social justice and world peace. What can Carmel possibly say to the Irish people who have been so grievously betrayed and offended?
I have also been asked to speak to these issues from our experience as Carmelites with similar challenges in my own country, suggesting that how Carmel in the United States is responding to these problems might offer some insight on how the Carmelite family in Britain and Ireland might face them. At first, I hesitated to say “yes” to the invitation. What can I, an outsider, possibly say that would provide light or support to you? And indeed, as I reflect on how we Carmelites in the States have responded to these issues, I cannot confidently identify one instance where we have made an identifiable difference. In various ways and in different places, in pulpits and parlors, in articles and lectures, in quiet prayer and public petitions, we have indeed addressed these challenges. Yet, at best, we are a voice crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (Jn 1:23). Does anyone listen? Do people change because we speak? It is hard to know for sure what, if any, impact, we are having. But whether or not our voice is heard, we continue to speak.
Still, I could not say “no.” I firmly believe that if we reflect on our history and tradition, its eremitical origins on Mt Carmel, its early days when establishing ourselves as mendicants in Europe, the trials we went through in the Black Death (1347-1351), the Great Schism and the Avignon Papacy (1378-1417) , the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the internal struggles occasioned by the Teresian Reform, and our heroic response to challenges in the modern world, especially to those of the French Reign of Terror, the Spanish Civil War, and the Nazi Holocaust, we will find heartening lessons for ourselves and the people we serve today. Although I can offer no definite and final solutions to the complex social problems we face today, at least I can lend my brotherly support and encouragement to you in Britain and Ireland and perhaps a few ideas from our experience in America, which, if we reflect on them together, may help you to see how best to respond to these issues here.
Clerical Sexual Abuse: A Churchwide Problem
I said “yes” to your invitation in February, 2010.. Since then the international media has revealed more unsettling stories about clerical sexual abuse and its mismanagement elsewhere in the church – Germany, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium. In 2002, when the long-festering clergy sexual abuse scandal finally broke wide-open in Boston, many saw this as an American problem, the inevitable result of our culture's fascination with sex, its absorption in materialism and consumerism, and our lax spiritual and moral standards in the selection, training, and lifestyle of our clergy and religious. Then came stories of clergy sexual abuse in Ireland. We in America, although saddened by these reports, at least took consolation that we were not alone in our problems. Now we realize that clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up by church authorities is neither solely an American nor an Irish problem, but is endemic in the Roman Catholic Church, at least in the North America and Western Europe. The problem is not local, but systemic. Since the middle of the last century, our way we of being Roman Catholic in the Western world somehow enables thousands of priests and religious to violate innocent children and adolescents -- to say nothing about clerical sexual misconduct with adults – while bishops and religious superiors tolerate this abuse to protect the church's supposed image and considerable financial assets.
What is the cause of this international sexual abuse problem? Indeed, is there a solution? Some knowledgeable voices in the United States have hastened to remind us that sexual abuse is not only a Catholic Church problem, but exists in other religious denominations and in other institutions of society, for instance, in education and other occupations of public trust. The violation of innocence is an epidemic in western world, as exemplified in continuing outbreaks of genocide, legalized abortion, and especially world hunger, where the international community allows 18,000 children to die every day from hunger and starvation, although there is the food and the technology to feed and care for them. The cases of admitted sexual abuse by priests in the Unites States is, in fact, relatively small, involving less than five percent of the Roman Catholic clergy. But in terms of actual cases there have been over 10,600 victims of clerical sexual abuse the United States, involving nearly 4,400 priests. Is this simply the church's predictable share of a wider human and global problem? Or is it, as I am gradually coming to believe, a systemic problem within the Roman Catholic church that calls for reform in the very way we live our Catholic lives? In either case, that thousands of priests sexually abuse thousands of children, adolescents, and adults in our Western world is an evil that requires a response from our Carmelite family. The problem may have its American face, or its Irish face, but it is a churchwide problem. It will likely remain even after we have implemented all the needed reforms in clerical life in the United States and you have fulfilled here in Ireland all the recommendations of the Holy Father's March 2010 “Pastoral Letter to Catholics of Ireland on Priestly Sex Abuse.”.
In sixteenth-century Spain, St. Teresa of Avila was “distressed” when she saw in her world the further fracturing of Christian unity through the Protestant Reformation and the loss of innumerable souls in Latin America for the lack of Christian education. She begged the Lord to allow her to “remedy so much evil.” She resolved “to follow the evangelical counsels as perfectly as I could and strive that these few persons who live here do the same.” Additionally, she realized that the life of prayer in her convents must not be solely for the personal perfection of the individual nuns, but also for the welfare of the entire church. “The world is all in flames,” she reminded her nuns, “. . .this is not the time to be discussing with God matters that have little importance.” She wanted her nuns to pray for the salvation of souls. “This is your vocation.” . Similarly, our distress and the helplessness we feel over today's issues, most especially clerical sexual abuse, should lead us as Carmelites to recommit ourselves, lay and religious alike, to the evangelical life and prayer for the church. In addition, our experience in the United States suggests additional ways of responding to the challenges of our age, not only in Ireland and Britain, but throughout the Roman Catholic Church.
Carmel: A Prophetic Community
Like the scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven who brought forth from his storeroom treasures both “new and old,” there are treasures in our Carmelite heritage that can address and bring healing to the brokenness of the world today. (Mt 13:51) The first is our historic identity as a prophetic community. The church itself, of course, is prophetic, a community of men and women who through their baptism are, whether they are aware of it or not, anointed to continue the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ throughout history. Likewise, every religious community shares in the same prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ, each according to its own charism. But Carmel, in claiming to live in the spirit of the prophet Elijah, with his motto -- “I have been most zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts” (1 Kgs 19:10) – emblazoned on its shield, considers itself especially “prophetic.” Elijah, the Old Testament prophet from “Tishbe in Gilead” (1 Kgs 17:1), models our Carmelite way of life. Like him, we strive daily to live in the presence of the Living God.(1 Kgs 17:1) Throughout our eight-century history we have emulated not only Elijah's solitary “sojourn” by the Wadi Cherith (1 Kgs 17:2-7) and his encounter with God in “a sound of sheer silence” on Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19:12), but also his confrontation with idolatry on Mt. Carmel (1 Kgs 18:19-40) and his denunciation of the injustice done by King Ahab, aided by his pagan wife Jezebel, to his fellow countryman Naboth (1 Kgs 21:1-29). We consider both the contemplative life and social action, especially that on behalf of those who suffer most from injustice, to be equally the “double portion” of Elijah's spirit, that we, like the prophet Elisha, have inherited from our spiritual father (2 Kgs 2:9-15). By affirming and living this prophetic heritage today we as a Carmelite family proclaim unabashedly to our contemporaries that God must have absolute priority in all human endeavors.
In the United States we have tried in recent years to raise our consciousness of being a prophetic community in various ways. In the Carmelite Institute's Fourth National Conference, held in Chicago, 2004, which had as its theme, “Carmel as a Sign of Hope and Healing in our Troubled World,'' the assembled Carmelites drafted a document, signed by both generals, Joseph Chalmers, O.Carm, and Luis Aróstegui Gambóa, OCD, supporting the eight Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations: “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; develop a global partnership for development.” Three years later, in the Carmelite Institute's Fifth National Conference, honoring the 800th anniversary of the Rule of St. Albert, the conference pursued the theme “The Prophetic Dimension of the Carmelite Rule.” We reflected in full assembly on the prophetic character of the rule, the prophetic calling of our Holy Father, Elijah, and the prophetic witness of such Carmelite men and women as Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, the Martyrs of Compiègne, Edith Stein, Titus Brandsma, and Jacques Bunel. Assisted by informed speakers from outside the Carmelite family, we looked closely at militarism and disregard for the environment as examples of specific challenges in contemporary American life and identified prayer, social action, and discernment as our prophetic response to these challenges. Finally, our Carmelite Institute's most recent national conference celebrated last June, 2010, at Notre Dame, Indiana, explored the theme “Carmel's Quest for the Living God,” and offered a workshop on “Carmel: A Prophetic Community” which traced historically the development of Carmel's prophetic consciousness and identified specific prophetic challenges for the Carmelite family in our contemporary world.
My own attempts to raise our consciousness of Carmel as a prophetic community in both the church and the world have concentrated on weekend retreats to our secular order communities and presentations at their regional and national congresses. I have insisted that Carmel is both a contemplative community and a prophetic community. In fact, we are prophetic because we are contemplative, as we can see from the lives of the Old Testament Prophets who spoke from their direct experience of the Living God and from the contemplative and prophetic lives of our New Testament saints. Drawing on John Paul II's Christifideles Laici or The Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People, I stress that the Carmelite seculars and laity, precisely because of their lay calling, have the primary responsibility in Carmel, even before the friars and nuns, for prophetic witness in the world – i.e., in the home, market place, the political arena, and the many other institution of contemporary life. Accordingly, I recommend that formation for Carmelite Seculars include equally both the works of the great Carmelite mystics and spiritual writers and The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. I stressthat we must carefully discern how this prophetic witness is to be given, either as Carmelite communities or as individuals; however, the discernment is not whether to be prophetic, but how to be prophetic. Without prophetic action, there is no Carmel. We are, our history tells us, a prophetic community.
Occasionally, fellow Carmelites resist my call to deepen our awareness of ourselves as a prophetic community. Some fear this will demand that they preach impassioned jeremiads condemning the behavior of our contemporaries or require that they become involved in political and social action to the neglect of our prayer life in Carmel, which they state, correctly, is our primary response to the prophetic challenges of our age. And yet, even from Carmel's contemplative silence, the voice of a prophetic consciousness may be heard. When Sister Constance FitzGerald, O.C.D., of the Baltimore Carmel, my Carmelite sister and colleague from the beginning of both the Carmelite Forum and Carmelite Institute in the United States, delivered an invited address last year, 2009, to the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting in Nova Scotia, Canada, she spoke on prophetic hope, drawing on John of the Cross's teachings on hope and the purification of memories for the development of prophecy. . It is probably more than a coincidence that this year's annual CTSA meeting, 2010, in Cleveland , Ohio, took as its convention theme “Theology's Prophetic Commitments.” Prompted by such contemporary realities as, in the words of the current CTSA president, Sr. Mary Anne Hinsdale, I.H.M, “two wars, ecological disaster, a crushing economy, . . . . a growing secular mindset, clergy sexual abuse and episcopal cover-ups, . . . church polarization, and alienation, especially among the young, . ..” the 400-plus assembled members of “the largest professional society of theologians and religious scholars in the Catholic Church” gave “much attention” to “notions of prophetic action” by theologians in today's church and world. I think Sr. Constance exemplifies that a developed prophetic consciousness in Carmel, drawing on the writings of our own saints, can inspire the wider Church.
When I use the word “prophetic,” I am, of course, referring to biblical prophecy as we discover it in the Hebrew Scriptures and behold its fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Christian Scriptures. Biblical prophecy covers centuries, beginning with Moses in the Exodus, to Elijah and Elisha in the 9th Century BC after the breakup of the monarchy; to Isaiah (b. 765 BC) and Jeremiah (b. 646 BC) in 8th and 7th centuries BC during Assyria's and Babylon's threat to Judah and Israel; to Ezekiel during the Babylonian Captivity (592-570 BC); to John the Baptizer, “a prophet, . . . and more than a prophet” ( Mt 11:9; Lk 7:26) announcing the “Lamb of God who takes away the the sin of the world “(Jn 1:29).
In this history, we can perhaps look most profitably to the prophets in the time of the Babylonian Exile and Return -- Ezekiel, Second Isaiah (Is. 40-55), Haggai, and Zechariah -- as exemplars for prophetic communities today. Fr Camilo Maccise has observed -- rightly, I believe -- that the church we live in today is a church in exile. The glory of the past is gone; shame and humiliation are our present; the future is hidden from us. Stable and unchanging ecclesiastical structures that formerly provided religious certainty and security are now themselves in endless change and flux, their leaders no longer trusted, their ministers deeply suspect. In the damning words of the prophet Ezekiel, the shepherds have too often pastured themselves, and not their sheep. They did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. They did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but lorded it over them harshly and brutally (Ez 34: 2-4) And so, just as the prophets of the Exile spoke to console the people in their suffering, to strengthen their hope and trust in a God who loves them and does not abandon them, but will create in them a new heart and spirit, and restore them “to the land God gave their fathers,” to a new Jerusalem and a new temple (Ez 36:23-28), so Carmel as a prophetic community in today's church must speak to a people who feel betrayed, disillusioned, discouraged, and angered by their church and troubled and threatened by economic insecurity and cultural change in their world. We must console by hearing and understanding their trials and suffering, and inspire hope and trust in a providential and merciful God, who will restore the church, reform the priesthood, and allow us to behold a new temple in a new Jerusalem, one that is a more compelling sign of “the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12:22).
How do we speak to a people in exile? What do we say? Biblical prophets speak from a direct experience of God to the people of God. They call them to be faithful to God's eternal covenant and to care for one another, especially the most needy.. Likewise, as Professor Bradford Hinze, a lay theologian at Fordham University in New York, reminds us, the prophets also speak from a direct experience of the people's anguish and beseech God to hear and answer them (Hb1:2-3;2:2-4). Prophetic ministry is thus centered in God. Prophets speak on God's behalf to the people; they speak on the people's behalf to God. In Carmelite terms, prophetic ministry is centered in God alone, “solo Dios” as both Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross say. Carmel witnesses to the absolute priority of God in all things. Jesus prophetically denounced the pharisees for their idolization of the temple and the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Law. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside may also be clean. Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of filth. Even so, on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing” (Mt 23:25-28) In that same spirit, Carmelites must always insist that the institutional and hierarchical church, with all its financial assets and impressive buildings, is not an end itself, but only a service to the living God. Its effectiveness depends on the continuous renewal of its interior life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also taught that “No one can serve two masters He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Mt 6:24). Similarly, we must remind people as they seek economic security, not to make idols out of money and material prosperity, but rather serve God alone with their lives, trusting that God will provide for their needs. We can with Teresa of Avila in her Meditations on the Song of Songs call the financially secure to reflect that “their riches are not their own but given by the Lord so that they, as His stewards, may share their wealth among the poor, and they must give a strict account for the time they keep a surplus in their coffers while delaying and putting off the poor who are suffering. . . .Beg the Lord,” she continues to tell her nuns, “to give rich people light that they may not continue in this daze and have happened to them what happened to the covetous rich man [Lk 12. 16-21].”
Above all, that our prophetic words be credible, we as Carmelite family must show through our prayer, our life together, and our ministry, that “God alone” --solo Dios -- is the absolute priority in our lives and that as hisanawim, his poor people who trust him totally, we depend on God alone for our daily material, emotional, and spiritual sustenance. The power of prophetic witness comes from the prophet's direct experience of the Living God. Biblical prophecy and Carmel's mystical tradition are thus similar, as John McKenzie, the late Biblical scholar, observed: “The only satisfactory parallel to the prophetic experience is the phenomena of mysticism as described by writers like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and others. They affirm that the immediate experience of God is ineffable; like the prophets, they must employ imagery and symbolism to describe it, with explicit warnings that these are used..They describe it as a transforming experience which moves one to speech and action beyond one's expected capacities. It grants them a profound insight not only into the divine reality but into the human scene. Thus the prophetic experience is such a mystical immediate experience of the reality and presence of God.” This direct experience of God must be visible in us.
Together with its prophetic tradition, Carmel has still other resources to offer the church and world in its current brokenness. Our classic spiritual metaphors, for example, can interpret the often unintelligible events of our times. In addition to being a people in exile, the church is currently going through a dark night of the soul. People often use St. John of the Cross's famous metaphor – dark night – to say simply that the church is enduring difficult times, just as individuals often suffer periods of hardship in life. Yet a closer look at John's metaphor may reveal more precisely what God is doing today to his people.
Darkness, as John reminds us, symbolizes deprivation or loss. Because of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States has lost or been deprived of the traditional honor and respect usually accorded to ministers of religion, her influence as a moral teacher on the burning social issues of our day, and over a billion dollars in financial assets and property holdings to settle abuse cases. But John of the Cross also understands deprivation as divine purification. We know his paradigm well. Through the deprivations we suffer in life God purifies us of our disordered attachments of sense and spirit in order that we might be free to grow in deeper faith, hope, and love, thus disposing ourselves to receive the transforming inflow of God's life and love into our lives.
In retrospect, we might similarly interpret the events of the last decade in the United States. Through the horror of the clergy sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up, God is purifying the church in America of its disordered attachments to power, prestige, and financial wealth that it might become more truly a community of faith, hope, and love, a humble servant church of Jesus Christ. The idolatrous practices in the temple of seventh century B.C. Jerusalem, such as side altars in honor of astral gods venerated by the Assyrians and sacred prostitution (Jer 7:16-20; 44:17-19) were abominations which eventually led to the destruction of the temple and the deportation of the people to Babylon, as Ezekiel tells the people (Ez 5:11); nonetheless, God remained faithful to his people even in the midst of their idolatry and infidelity, purifying them in exile, sprinkling clean water upon them to cleanse them from all their impurities and idolatry, giving them a new heart and placing a new spirit within them, indeed placing even his own spirit in them enabling them to live by his statutes, careful to observe his decrees. (Ez 36:25-27) Likewise, nothing is more abominable than violating the sacred temple of a human person, especially through sexual abuse of innocent children by trusted clergy; yet even in the midst of this sinfulness, God never abandons his people, but purifies them of their wickedness and idolatry. From our rich spiritual heritage, Carmel can identify how God acts through human darkness to purify his church and bring persons – both the abused and the abusers -- to a closer union with himself.
Spiritual Care for Survivors
In addition to interpreting God's purifying action within the church, Carmelite spirituality can also provide spiritual healing for survivors of clergy sexual abuse and its mismanagement by the hierarchy. Stevan Wlusek, a Canadian priest of the diocese of London, Ontario, last April, 2010, defended a doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto entitled “The Unique Contribution of the Carmelite Tradition of Spirituality toward the Care of Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Noting “the high incidence of sexual abuse in Canada” of those under the age of 18, (p.3) Father Wlusek indicates that on any Sunday, 15-20 per cent of those in a worshiping congregation are likely to have been sexually abused as children. (p. 5) I suspect the same can be said for the United States and Ireland. This abuse by older authority figures significantly undermines a child's development, with negative consequences lasting well into the adult years. Most profoundly affected is the person's religious and spiritual growth, especially if the abuser has been a religious professional.. “If God is so good and loving and the church is a caring community committed to peace and justice, why did this happen to me? “ This often unanswered question haunts survivors, even into adulthood. From his experience with many survivors as a chairperson of his diocesan sexual abuse committee, Fr. Wlusek observes that there are many necessary and effective therapeutic programs available to provide care and healing for survivors in the physical, psychological, and social dimensions of their lives; however, relatively little attention has been given to the spiritual care of sexual abuse survivors. And yet, this spiritual dimension is the most important in a person's life.
Fr. Wlusek demonstrates that the Carmelite tradition of spirituality, particularly as expressed in the writings of John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Edith Stein, is ideally suited to providing this spiritual care. He writes: “The writings of Carmelites John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Edith Stein offer a unique and meaningful contribution for the spiritual care of sexual abuse survivors. The perspectives of these writers have significance for critical reasons. The life experience of these Carmelites involved forms of injustice and suffering which have similarities with those endured by survivors of abuse . Their texts directly respond to the question and meaning of human suffering. They also significantly address the experiences of suffering, abandonment, anxiety, darkness and meaninglessness that are so often encountered by survivors of abuse. [Their] writings . . . offer a unique perspective that can benefit the healing journey of survivors.” (Abstract, p. ii)
.. For example, Father Wlusek shows the significance for abuse survivors of the Carmelite teaching on “the purification of the faculty of the memory through hope.” Abuse survivors often suffer disturbances of memory by either, on the one hand, totally denying or completely blocking the recall of the traumatic event into consciousness, usually leaving large gaps in their childhood memories; or, on the other hand, by flashbacks of the traumatic event even years after it occurred, frequently with the same fear, insecurity, and confusion that was felt at the time of the trauma. The healing of memory is fostered by helping survivors both face and accept the reality of their trauma, while also letting go of it, -- that is, by not dwelling on past memories, experiences, and images -- in favor of placing their hope in God's merciful love for them and opening themselves to the grace God wishes to give them in the present moment.
Fr. Wlusek writes: “The Carmelites stress that, rather than dwelling on these past circumstances, individuals are to shift their gaze toward God in hope. Survivors of abuse may gain significant benefit from regularly re-aligning their gaze toward God in hope . . . [and] from regularly re-aligning their perspective toward God. It may help to lift them out of the cycle of dwelling on the pain and anxiety associated with their past traumas, and direct their attention to God who loves and abides with them.”
Fr. Wlusek then cites the example of St. Thérèse: “As Thérèse was able to recognize that God had been present to strengthen her even during her most intense experiences of suffering, so survivors of abuse may come to recognize God's presence in their past. They can discern that God provided them with natural means of coping with the traumas they suffered, as well as supernatural grace which has led them to deeper union with God. This discernment may help to dissipate their tendency to regard their past only with negativity.”
Finally, Fr.Wlusek concludes, showing how ministering to the spiritual dimension of survivors from the Carmelite tradition of spirituality coordinates with the psychotherapist's efforts to heal memories. “It must be stressed that, in presenting the perspectives of the Carmelites regarding the purification of memory, there is no intention to diminish the importance of psychological therapy in helping survivors process the pain of their past . Rather the inspiration offered by the Carmelites can assist survivors in their engagement in the arduous work of therapy by helping them place their hope in God to provide them with the strength and perseverance they need.”
Carmelite spirituality, then, is not only a school of mysticism for those longing for transforming union with God, but it is also a spiritual path for those who seek healing from sexual trauma. Drawing on Fr. Wlusek's work and that of others who minister spiritually to survivors, formation in Carmelite spirituality ought to note its healing potential and prepare those who will minister Carmelite spiritual doctrine to make these healing benefits available to survivors, especially those abused by clergy and religious. This may indeed by one of Carmel's greatest contributions to the church in Ireland as it recovers from the long dark night of clerical sexual abuse.
The Decline in Religious Practice
Sharing Carmel's tradition of contemplative spirituality is also probably our best response to the decline in religious faith and practice among Catholics in Britain and Ireland. Long before the clergy sexual abuse crisis publicly erupted in the Unities States, people's commitment to the hierarchical and institutional church was already waning. Even as the needed liturgical and pastoral reforms of the Second Vatican Council were being faithfully implemented, many Catholics in the United States were simply dropping out. They no longer attended church regularly. They stopped looking to bishops, priests, and religious for spiritual and moral leadership. At the same time, there was a spiritual and social awakening among America's youth. Many served the poor and needy. Some traveled to Asia searching for spiritual wisdom and practice. They were not, as the older generation often judged them, self-centered and materialistic. The problem, rather, was that the institutional church was no longer able to challenge their generosity and spiritual longings.
Typical of this younger generation was an Irish-American catholic named Maura O'Halloran. Born in 1955 in Boston to an Irish father and American mother, Maura moved with her family to Ireland when she was four years old. She attended convent schools and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, The oldest of five children, Maura showed great concern for the poor by working in soup kitchens and fostering social justice both in Ireland and Latin America. She was also deeply attracted to the spiritual life and tried various forms of prayer and meditation. In 1979, at the age of twenty-four, she entered, not a community of Roman Catholic contemplative nuns, but a Buddhist monastery in Tokyo, Japan. Maura made remarkable progress in her spiritual practices of meditation and self-discipline. In the opinion of her roshi ( or teacher) she attained “enlightenment” within a year and was marked for leadership in the community by the time she was twenty-six years old. . She grew in compassion and desired to live her life “for other people.” She wrote in her journal at this time:"I must go deeper and deeper and work hard, no longer for me, but for everyone I can help.”
Tragically, Maura was killed in a bus accident in Thailand on a trip back to Ireland when she was only twenty-seven years old. Considering her to be a saint, the Buddhists showed their reverence for Maura by erecting a statue of her outside of one of their monasteries in northern Japan. Since her death she has acquired a devoted following of both Buddhists and Christians who see in her life a parallel of the uncompromising holiness of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. .
I see a similar phenomenon at the Insight Meditation Society, a center for Buddhist practice in the United States at Barre, Massachusetts. Throughout the year, the center sponsors three-day, ten-day, and ninety-day retreats in the practice of Buddhist meditation that are all attended by up to one hundred people, many of them, if I can judge by the Irish and Italian names on the participants list for a ten day retreat I made there, come from Roman Catholic backgrounds. Maura O'Halloran, a Christian Zen monk, and numerous Catholics flocking to a Buddhist meditation center exemplify that while there may be a decline in faith and practice in traditional institutional Catholicism, there seems to be no decrease in Catholics who hunger and thirst for authentic spirituality. This is further attested to by the current growth in the Centering Prayer movement, not only in the United States, but in other countries as well.
Aware of this evident longing for spirituality, our Carmelite Forum in the United States has committed itself through its annual seminars and the audio programs and written materials that have come from them, to fostering a more contemplative church in the United States. We want to show people the rich spiritual heritage of our Catholic tradition. We want to provide them through the teachings of our Carmelite saints and writers a solid education for contemplation. We believe that contemplation as it is taught in the Carmelite tradition, not only satisfies people's desire for authentic spirituality, but it also transforms their consciousness, enabling them to see life through God's eyes and to respond to the social challenges of our times with the compassionate heart of Jesus Christ. Contemplation challenges Christians to live fully, longing for union with the living God and serving others in love and compassion, justice and peace. Contemplation has power to transform contemporary Catholic life. Only God knows the extent to which the Carmelite Forum in the United States actually contributes to this transformation in the American Church. However, we are convinced that educating others for contemplation is truly a Carmelite work. Here in Britain and Ireland this may be the best way you can respond to the decline in faith and religious practice you see around you. This may be especially true now in Ireland. People have seen the church at its worst; a flourishing contemplative life shows them the church at its best.
Finally, our Carmelite tradition fosters historic attitudes that can bring healing to God's people today. The first is a love for the church, which we inherit especially from St. Teresa of Avila. Teresa loved the church. She delighted in her glory. She submitted all of her writings to the church's judgment. “If I should say something that isn't in conformity with what the Holy Roman Catholic Church holds,” she writes in the Prologue of her spiritual masterpiece, The Interior Castle, “it will be through ignorance and not through malice. This can be held as certain, and also that through the goodness of God I always am, and will be, and have been subject to her. May He be always blessed and glorified, amen.”
Yet Teresa was fully aware of the church's human shortcomings. She lamented the division caused by the Protestant revolution, the destruction of churches, and disregard for the Blessed Sacrament in Europe, and especially the laxity and violation of the vows she saw in religious life in her own native Spain. In chapter seven of The Book of her Life, she writes: “True religious life is practiced so little that the friar or nun who is indeed about to follow wholeheartedly his call must fear those of his own house more than all the devils . . . . I don't know why we are amazed that there are so many evils in the Church since those who are to be the models from which all might copy the virtues are so obscurely fashioned that the spirit of the saints of the past has abandoned the religious communities. May it please the divine majesty to remedy this as He sees it to be necessary, amen.” Teresa committed herself and her nuns to serve and pray for what she describes as “the extreme need the Church is now in.”
Similarly, we today see “the extreme need the Church is now in.” Now is not the time to turn away from the church, but, like Teresa, to love her all the more and pray for her welfare. In the United States, I frequently encounter reactions like: “How can you possibly commit your life to an institution so corrupt, its ministers so degraded as to sexually abuse innocent children, and its leaders so inept, incompetent, and so out of touch with the real world?” I can only answer that the church is not an idealized human organization or perfect society, but the risen body of Christ. We are members of the Body of Christ, but a risen Christ who still bears the wounds caused by human sin and weakness. “Jesus said to Thomas:'Put your finger here and see my hand; and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do no be unbelieving, but believe' ” (Jn 20:27). As Pope Benedict pointed out in his March 2010 pastoral to the Irish people, our Christian faith includes identifying with the wounds of our risen Lord (no.5). In his wounds our wounds of sin find healing and forgiveness; and as members of his risen wounded body, we are called to help heal the wounds of others, in this instance both the abused and the abusers. Today, Carmel's traditional love for the church calls us to enter the wounds of our risen Lord as a source of healing, both for ourselves and others.
Closely related to Carmel's love for the church is her devotion to Our Lady. From the cross, Jesus gave Mary to the church as a spiritual mother. We in Carmel have experienced her maternal care and protection many times over our 800 year history. Today we ask her intercession for the church in all her needs, but especially as she struggles through the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Indeed, imitating Mary is another important Carmelite response to this crisis. As the preface for the Mass of our Lady's Assumption states, Mary is “the pattern of the church in its perfection.” As we imitate her virtues, particularly her fidelity to God's will, her purity of life, and her compassion for others, we strengthen the church and effectively promote her renewal.
We should particularly imitate Mary's openness to the Holy Spirit, who renews the church in every age. Like Mary, may we be fully open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. May the Spirit purify our memories of inordinate attachments to past ways of being church, so that we may cooperate with whatever means the Spirit may choose to free the church from the evils of clericalism and institutionalism, and fully embrace all that leads to the church's healing and renewal. What is the Spirit saying to the church today? To the church in the United States? To the church in Ireland? To the church in Britain? In imitation of Mary of Nazareth, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, this is the question we must continually ask in our discernment of the future, and in prayer ask for Mary's courage and strength to embrace the Spirit's response.
These, then, are my thoughts as an American Carmelite friar on how “The Carmelite Tradition Speaks to Us Today.” I trust they will stimulate good discussion on how our Carmelite family may best respond to the challenges of our modern world.
Thank you for your attention.
Camilo Maccise, O.C.D., “The Renewal of Our Community Life,” Private Conferences to the Washington Province “Convivencia,” Madison, Wisconsin, April 12-17, 2010; see also Michael Crosby, OFM Cap., “Ezekiel as Exile,” in Can Religious Life Be Prophetic? (New York: Crossroad, 2005), 111-35.
Stevan A. Wlusek, “The Unique Contribution of the Carmelite Tradition of Spirituality toward the Care of Sexual Abuse Survivors,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto, 2010).