Monday 10 January 2011

Carmel & Holiness

I am busy preparing for the first of this years retreats and have been re-reading some of the material I have prepared over the years. This talk struck a chord as I am preparing  a retreat for a lay community in Scotland around the themes of community and holiness. This talk was given at Aylesford in December 2002.

Carmel and Holiness - Damian Cassidy, O.Carm.

I have been asked to reflect on the way in which we are called to holiness. Before I can address this we need to have a common understanding of what holiness is, if only so that you can know how I am approaching the subject. Scripture scholars tell us that the root of the word ‘Holy’ is ‘different.’ Isaiah has this in mind when he says ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts than your thoughts.’[1] So in Greek [Hagios] and Hebrew [Kodesh] to be ‘Holy’ means to be different. I would like you to hold on to that meaning.
According to the Oxford dictionary holiness is sanctity which is itself then described as holiness of life, saintliness, sacredness, being hallowed, right to reverence, inviobility. As you can see when we rely on dictionaries for definitions we can enter a round robin of meanings.
I have some friends who married some years ago, and for some years they lived with the frustration of being childless. They now have two beautiful children and one evening I was sitting at the table, with their 4 year old daughter and Sean and Carmel and they were describing what life was like for them before she was born. They told her that before she was born they wanted a baby so badly that they told God it didn’t matter. It could be a boy or a girl, a big baby or a little baby, brown eyes or blue eyes. They just wanted a baby and any baby would do. Then they looked at their daughter and Sean said, ‘But we are so glad that God sent us you.’ Rebecca looked back at them and said with great seriousness ‘I’m so glad that you stayed at home the day God came!’ That has become my definition of holiness ~ being open to God, being At Home for God. Being ready for his presence. We must remember that holiness is a gift – something that God does in us. We can only be ready for God’s coming.
Carmel narrates this and gives this definition root and meaning. The call of Carmel is one of disturbance. We allow God to stir up longings and desires and then we struggle within the tension that has been created. Carmel is never a place to be static, it is not about the plateau or the plains, it is gutsy, hilly, and often ‘in your face’. If we enter and encounter this space alone, we will never last. Our strength will wane and we will know only frustration. The message of Carmel is Emmanuel ~ God with us.
The new Ratio of the order presents our vocation in the context of relationship. The very first paragraph of the document says:-
“God loved us first, and he called us to participate in the communion of the Trinity. We recognise his call in the experience of his love. Moved by the Spirit, we listen to the Word of Christ, who is the way that leads to life. In his footsteps, entrusting ourselves to God’s merciful love, we set out on the journey to the summit of mount Carmel, the place where we encounter God and are transformed in him.”

God is always the initiator. Vocation begins in the depths of God’s love for us, a love of relationship, of community, of welcome and of belonging. Because vocation is lived in the tension of relationship, it requires a response. The call to life is heard by those who live, not in self absorbed isolation, but in creative and life-giving dialogue with the world and the people with whom we live.
Taking this statement from the ratio to pieces we can isolate the kernel of the Carmelite Vocation.
God loved us first! For humanity this is the hardest reality not just to accept but live in its knowledge. God loves us and there is nothing we can do to diminish that love. God cannot love us more and will not love us less!
God calls us to share in the ‘communion of the Trinity.’ God calls us into the heart of God’s-self – the Trinity! Think about it, this is absolutely mind blowing. The Trinity is our home, the ultimate place of our being. The more I reflect on this the more awesome this fact becomes. The vocational response is how do we live this? How do we reflect the Trinity in our homes, our relationships, our workplaces, communities, parishes? Do we give the Trinity liberty in our lives? Do we allow the Father to create and renew, do we allow the Son to love in us – in the language of John the Evangelist – whose feet do we wash? Do we allow the Spirit to blow where she will? Do we see God at work amongst us and in us? To be Carmelite is to mine the depths of our experiences knowing that in them we will find God.
We recognise God’s call in the experience of God’s love. This is the context of our life in God. LOVE! The call is one of relationship and encounter. We are ‘at home’ with those whom we love. In love there is acceptance and nurture. I am a bit of a film fan and one of my favourite films is the Jack Nicholson film As Good As It Gets! Nicholson plays a man with a fractured personality. He falls in love with a very independent woman and things seem to be going well. One evening he seems to be floundering and he resorts to his sarcasm as a defence against his vulnerability. Helen Hunt challenges him to pay her a compliment, and he struggles with the truth and then he utters the wonderful line ‘You make me want to be a better person.’ Love draws from his character the desire to be the best possible, the most authentic version of who he is. Love and relationship are the ways in which we come to knowledge of ourselves. It is in the lived experience of love that we realise that self is not enough. We are made for others. The American song writer Jan Crist says in one of her songs – it’s not love that hurts, it’s the lack.
Moved by the Spirit, we listen to the Word of Christ, who is the way that leads to life. Attentiveness is the attitude of the contemplative. This is mirrored by the season that we are celebrating and experiencing now. Advent is the time of longing; we join Mary, the women pregnant with the Word, the life of God. We yearn to hear the cry of the Christ Child. The Hebrew people longed for the Messiah and God came to them not in majesty but in poverty, not with a roar of authority, no, the voice of God was heard for the first time in human history in the bemused cry of a newborn child.
In his footsteps, entrusting ourselves to God’s merciful love, we set out on the journey to the summit of mount Carmel, the place where we encounter God and are transformed in him. This is the hard part. The dessert, the place of God’s transforming love. We resist change. The pointing out of areas of growth in our lives is always hard. The realisation that transformation is a gift is liberating but requires our acceptance of vulnerability. When I professed solemn vows in July, our provincial Tony remarked on the recklessness of this act. He pointed out that when I lay on the ground, with my face in the dirt, I was praying as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. The handing over of everything is not an event. It is a process that continues all through life. Often it is ‘one step forward two steps back.’ It is hard, but I live in the assurance that I will come to a place of freedom that is God and the welcome and life that will be mine is beyond imagination. The constitutions of our family present the lives and fidelity of Elijah and Mary.
From Elijah, Carmelites learn to be people of the desert, with heart undivided, standing before God and entirely dedicated to his service, uncompromising in the choice to serve God’s cause, aflame with passionate love for God.
Art. 26.

Mary brings the Good News of salvation to all men and women … looking at her, and living in spiritual intimacy with her, we learn to stand before God, and with one another, as the Lord’s brothers [and sisters]. Mary lives among us, as a mother and sister, attentive to our needs; along with us she waits and hopes, suffers and rejoices.
Art. 27.

I will conclude with the words of a fellow Carmelite, who was alive with God’s love and this love led him to an appreciation of his place in God’s world.
Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine are the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and god … is mine, and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me. What do you ask, then, and seek my soul? Yours is all of this, and all is for you. Do not engage yourself in something less, nor pay heed to the crumbs which fall from the table. Go forth and exult in your Glory! Hide yourself in It and rejoice, and you -will obtain the supplications of your heart.[2]

[1] Isaiah 55:9
[2]‘Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love’ in the Collected Works of St John of the Cross, pp 87-88.

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