Discipleship and Union with Christ:  A Carmelite Insight

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Discipleship within The Carmelite Rule

The Rule of St. Albert of Jerusalem, also called The Carmelite Rule, speaks about religious life being a call to live in allegiance to Jesus Christ with a pure heart and stout conscience (Rule #2).  The Carmelite sees that the life of discipleship is made possible by allegiance made manifested through one’s purity of heart and a stout conscience.  This call of the Carmelite as put forward by the Rule is rooted in Christ’s command “to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me (Matt. 16:24).”  As St. John of the Cross began his text The Dark Night with the goal (or the horizon) of the spiritual life, union with God through love; the Carmelite Rule places the final stage of discipleship first, following Jesus, which we understand through the call to allegiance.  Then the rule moves us to the middle stage ‘picking up your cross’ which is done through one’s purity of heart.  Finally, the rule takes a Carmelite to the first stage of discipleship, ‘deny yourself,’ which is recorded last and summarized in the need for a stout conscience.  Each aspect of discipleship is necessary for the life of the disciple, and therefore we will begin a journey through the stages as Christ has taught us.

Deny Yourself – The Need for a Stout Conscience

Jesus calls his disciples to deny themselves.  This command of Jesus offers the reader a question to ponder:  what am I denying?  To reject something, there needs to be some knowledge within the person about what it is that they are rejecting within themselves. A fundamental aspect of Carmelite Spirituality is the call to and for self-knowledge that is why the desert image is so important for a Carmelite.   It is in the desert that the person becomes fully exposed to themselves, and thus see themselves for who they are.  This journey into and through the desert is aided by a stout conscience, by which they gain the ability to sit with and look upon the true self.  What does it mean to have a stout conscience?  Well, stoutness is rooted in the idea of bravery and determination.  One way to understand bravery is to understand it through the idea of an enemy that approaches the self, and the individual ‘stands their ground’ against that enemy, though this is not the primary idea for the Carmelite.  For a Carmelite, bravery, being stout, is founded upon the ability for a person to stand over and against themselves.  A person cultivating a stout conscience can turn to themselves first, before ever correcting another, and know what it is that needs to be rejected (tossed away), so the self can become totally free from its own oppression.

What is an example of a person with this stout conscience that stands against the self?  The Prodigal Son.  St. Luke wrote “But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father … (Luke 15: 17-18a).”  The Prodigal Son after being thrust into utter poverty, through his own actions, and the events of the world around him, came to his senses, about his situation.  He looked at himself, not only in his present state, but past also, and thought about what brought him there, and also about who his father is as a person.  The act to reflect on one’s owns actions, and to not make excuses about how things turned out, but accept them as they are in relationship to one’s choices is a true mark of bravery.  His act of bravery, to face his mistakes, was then followed up by determination, shown through the ability to repent, and seek forgiveness from his father.  The Prodigal Son knew if he wanted to live, he must return to his father, but he also knew his actions, stripped him from the sonship that had been his from birth.  The call to reject oneself calls for the need to look at one’s own self, stoutheartedly, and reject the behaviors and desires that have taken one away from the Father’s loving embrace.  It is the need to look at one’s own self stoutly that makes ups the majority of Book 1 of The Dark Night where St. John of the Cross reflects upon the spiritual aspects of the seven deadly sins.

Pick up Your Cross – Having a Pure Heart

Christ calls us to pick up our cross.  How are we to fulfill this call? The Carmelite response is with a pure heart.  Of course, the Carmelite response is deep-seated within the Christian tradition.  Recall, when Jesus tells us “Blessed are the Pure of Heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8).”  It is through the cross that we see who our God is.  Good Friday reveals to us the depth of God’s love for us, which is a gaze we are invited into.  Easter Sunday shows us the power of His love, a love that defeated death.  As St. Paul wrote, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).”  Also, St. Paul reminds us that “For one believes with the heart … (Rom. 10:10).”  Yet, it is our hearts that cause us to settle for the lesser things and the little comforts of life.  St. John of the Cross reminds us that two contraries cannot coexist in the same subject and that love of God and attachments to creatures are contraries, and thus cannot exist within the same will (Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 1, Chapter 6, par. 1).  As Christ told us in his Sermon on the Mount “For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be (Matt. 6: 21).”  Thus, it is the eyes of our heart that needs to see the Cross as its treasure, so it will embrace it fully.

The purification of the heart is why St. John of the Cross spent much of his life pondering the Dark Night experiences.  It is through the Dark Night experiences (The Dark Night of the Senses and Soul) that the heart becomes free of its attachments, and can then embrace its cross.  Why? because the person’s heart now beats in union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ, desiring what Christ himself desires.  It is from the two hearts beating as one that Christ’s love is made manifested in the world.  Making transformation possible.  Therefore, when we look at ourselves stoutly, we can see the weeds of sin and attachments that hold our heart back from seeing the beauty of the Cross, as a means that allow our hearts to beat in union with Jesus.  Of course, it is hard to find our cross which is entrusted to us by Jesus, when it is buried within a field of weeds.  Thankfully, his grace allows our eyes to see, the gift of our Cross.  His grace, also, clears the field allowing us to find the way to our cross.  Why? So, we can be like Jesus and embrace the cross with a free heart, because it is in and through the cross that our love becomes perfected in his love (Col. 1:24, Matt. 5:48, 1 Jn 4:10).

Follow M – Allegiance

Now, having a stout conscience, and a pure heart, a person can move to the final command of discipleship:  To Follow Jesus.  The invitation to follow Jesus is the goal for a Carmelite’s life.   This goal for a Carmelite is understood via the term allegiance. Allegiance is founded on the idea of loyalty, but loyalty to a superior.  A stout conscience and pure heart make it possible for a person to realize that they are not their own goal, nor their own God and that they themselves belong to another.  Life, in the fullest sense, is made possible through remaining united to our superior, God.  We see this idea of loyalty expressed by St. Paul twice.  In his pastoral letters, he describes both Timothy and Titus as both being loyal children in the faith (1 Tim. 1:2, Tit. 1:4).  It is from this description of them that St. Paul goes on to offer his salutary blessing.  Their loyalty to the faith, which is rooted in Jesus Christ, makes it possible for them to receive a blessing from God.  Allegiance, founded on loyalty, makes it possible for a person to begin to act like and be like the one they have allied themselves too.

St. John wrote “Beloved, it is a loyal thing you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you (3 Jn. 5).”  Being in allegiance to Jesus means being like Jesus. Our hearts and minds are called to be focused on Jesus, so we can follow him along the way, staying loyal to every step he makes before us.  May we never forget these words of Christ “His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy (Matt. 25:21).”  We can only share in the life of Jesus and thus his joy, in as much as we are willing to be like him. Therefore, at the end of The Interior Castle St. Teresa of Jesus offers a reflection on the holy sisters, Mary and Martha. Why? Because we are called to be like both.  It is insufficient for the believer to merely focus their minds and hearts on Jesus, their hands must also become like his, so his compassionate and merciful love may be made known throughout the world.  The Carmelite’s goal of allegiance to Christ, means we act like he acts, and that is how we follow our Lord.  Our stout conscience and pure hearts, safeguard us, from following a false Jesus, constructed by our own egos.

Hearts in Union

The call to discipleship is a serious matter for the Carmelite.  Again, St. John of the Cross warns us that we need to be careful into whose hands we entrust ourselves because the disciple becomes like their master (Living Flame of Love Stanza 3 par. 30).  Our ultimate master is Jesus Christ, who has called us to follow him, and for the Carmelite, that means we owe him our allegiance.   Thus, the warning from St. John of the Cross, applies doubly for us, because through our traditional, many Christians have come to us seeking spiritual guidance, as they seek to deny themselves, pick up their cross, and follow Jesus.  Developing a stout conscience and a pure heart, seem like simple things for people, but anyone who has tried to eradicate weeds from a garden knows, that it is not as easy as it appears.  The roots of our attachments are deep and the voraciousness of our appetites are almost insatiable. That is why the process of discipleship cannot be done by our own accord but is only made possible by Jesus Christ.  Jesus tells us “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst (Jn. 6: 35).”  True disciples know that it is only in Jesus, that the words of eternal life are found (Jn. 6: 68), and it is only in union with His heart that our hearts find their fulfillment and rest.

A final thought from St. John of the Cross “He who seeks not the cross of Christ seeks not the glory of Christ.”  (The Sayings of Light and Love #102)

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