“To be a child of God means to be led by the hand of God, not one’s own will, to place every care and every hope in the hand of God and not to worry about oneself or one’s future.”-St. Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)
An Annual Carmelite Retreat
Two weeks ago I made a weekend retreat at the Carmelite retreat house I have gone to almost annually since I was 22 years old; I am now 60. When I called to sign up for the retreat, it was booked solid. But two days before the retreat, there was a cancellation, and I was in.
Over the entrance of the retreat house chapel, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is the inscription, MY EYES, AND MY HEART WILL REMAIN HERE FOREVER. I remember how the words struck me the first time I read them. I was young, and discerning a vocation to the active Carmelite order that ran and staffed the retreat house, several schools, and two convalescent homes. It was at a time when the majority of women’s religious orders had shed their habits. One thing that attracted me to the order was that they had remained traditional, against the grain of society and a Church that seemed more and more unsteady. I wish I could say that my heart remained as steady as those words over the chapel entrance have remained for me. But as Scripture says, God will always remain faithful, even when we don’t, for He cannot deny Himself. How good God is.
Accept My Mercy
A few months later, I was off course and obstinately headed in a different direction, one guided by whim and poorly reasoned decisions. In His mercy, however, no matter how far off course I got, God was always the constant in my life, holding me up, or holding me together, more real to me than anything that passed by, injured, or gave me joy. He was an indomitable Presence who never relented in His guidance, power to astonish, and gifts of kindness that pulled me through. I grew to better understand His love for me, and that, no matter how neglectful I was of Him, or even how shabbily I treated Him at times, He would never let go of me. I had become reliant on His unwarranted goodness. The call persisted: Accept My mercy.
“It is enough to love God and to give oneself to Him in all things out of love. Holiness consists in a disposition of the heart which makes us humble and little in the arms of God, conscious of our weakness and confident to the point of audacity in His Fatherly kindness.”-St. Therese of the Child Jesus
With a marriage, divorce, and annulment behind me less than 10 years later, I was left with two beautiful daughters and an ex-husband who would remain a dear and supportive friend for life. The call to deeper union with Jesus, my first Friend, remained, but now there was no remedy for it. My life was wrapped up in my growing children, and that was as it should be. Through them, God showed me the day to day joys and wringing of the heart that make up the reality of what true, and necessarily sacrificial, love is. I had a taste of my own mother’s love for me, and but a hint of God’s love for all His troubled and troubling children.
As time marched on, deeper prayer became a deepening desire. Not that I engaged in meditative of contemplative prayer, or even knew how. During rare or stolen hours, I felt that the sections on Catholic classics in libraries and bookstores belonged to me, as I pulled volume after volume off the shelves and was nourished with reason, truth, and the divine light of love accessible to all in Jesus. I remember plowing expectantly through the mysterious pages of St. Teresa of Avila’s three great works on prayer, like a thief trying to crack open a safe containing all the gold of a prosperous King, but, alas, relenting, not having the skill or patience necessary to break open and abscond with its precious contents.
The Call Persisted
Still, there was so little time to devote seriously to anything other than my family and my teaching at the nearby Catholic school. Fortuitously, it was my principal at this same school who first introduced me privately to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. I subsequently took courses at another parish under a fine priest and teacher, well versed in the Spiritual Exercises and the Discernment of Spirits of St. Ignatius. Little by little, God was satisfying the longings of my heart. Things were falling into my lap that I neither had the time nor thought to seek out. By now I had heard of and put into practice both the prayer methods of Lectio Divina and the Ignatian Exercises. Oddly enough, the priest who gave the Ignatian Excercise classes also began giving silent Ignatian retreats at the Carmelite retreat house where I went yearly, and from among his certificated trainees, I gained a spiritual director. By now, my children were grown. The call persisted: Be still and know that I am God.
“That which we most need in order to make progress is to be silent before the great God with the desire and with the tongue, for the language that He best hears is the silent language of love.”-St. John of the Cross
One night, at a Bible study class I was attending at my parish, a woman I did not know, specifically took me aside and asked me if I might like to visit her community of Secular Carmelites, situated in another parish a half hour’s drive away. They were accepting new members if I would like to come and see at their next Saturday meeting. I thanked her for the invitation and started playing with the idea of actually attending. I had learned enough about spiritual discernment by now to know that God was afoot, ushering me onto a new threshold once again. My recent return to reciting certain prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours, my incidental viewing of a program discussing the Church’s secular religious orders followed by ruminations over which one I might join IF I were so inclined, and this persistent desire to explore a deeper, more unitive prayer with Jesus, all seemed to culminate in the invitation of my fellow Bible student that evening. It was not like before when I was young, and ruled by feelings, untamed reasoning, and haphazard choices. God’s hand was out and I could touch it. I joined the Secular Carmelites to see if it was right for me. As it turned out, everything I wanted was there. Why hadn’t I seen it clearly all along?
“When I apply myself to prayer, I feel all my spirit and all my soul lift itself up without any care or effort of mine, and it continues as it were suspended and firmly fixed in God as in its center and place of rest.”-Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection
Often I have mused over how my life would have been different if I had stayed the course and entered the convent at the retreat house. Would I have fallen so hard so many times? Would I have grown so much? Would I have grappled with my desires so constantly and been so astounded and grateful as each was met? Would I have discovered the nuances and depths of love that reside in being a mother and owning the goodness of the lives that daily surround me? Was my ideal God’s ideal for me? I don’t know. What I do know better now is who I am, and all the difficulties of being me that God knew He had to deal with at the outset. No, even before. He knows what He is about, and, as I have heard, likes to draw and paint with crooked lines. I am indeed a crooked line, but then again, aren’t most of us? As long as somewhere along the way, anywhere at all, the mist clears and we see and take hold of the Master’s hand, He will complete the masterpiece with inimitable flair, to our own final astonishment, just before welcoming us Home.
“A Carmelite is a soul of faith.”-St. Elizabeth of the Trinity
A Discalced Carmelite of the Secular Order
One week ago I pronounced my 3-year temporary promises as a Discalced Carmelite of the Secular Order. Seems like yesterday that I entered as a curious aspirant. At the end of the next three years, my final promise awaits, when indeed I can say with the conviction of a lifetime accompanied by the hand and Heart of God, MY EYES AND MY HEART WILL REMAIN HERE FOREVER.
“Let your desire be to see God, your fear that you may lose Him, your sorrow that you are not having fruition of Him, you joy that He can bring you to Himself. Thus, you will live in great peace.”-St. Teresa of Jesus
For further reading on Carmelite saints and spirituality:
The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Revised edition. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD. Washington D. C.: ICS Publications, 1991.
Interior Castle. Teresa of Avila. Translated and edited by E. Allison Peers. New York: Image, Doubleday, 2004.
Divine Intimacy: Meditations on the Interior Life for Every Day of the Liturgical Year. Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD. Translated from the seventh Italian edition by the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Boston. Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1996.
The Practice of the Presence of God / Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Critical Edition by Conrad de Meester. Translated by Salvatore Sciurba, OCD. Washington D. C.: ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2015.
The Science of the Cross. Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). Translated by Josephine Koeppel. Washington: Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites, Inc., 2002.