You Alone, Lord, You Alone

A dear friend in New York turns 91 this coming January.  After 54 years of marriage her husband died of cancer on September 11, 2001.  Since then she has persevered alone in faith and a suffering love.  Over these years she would often say she missed her husband, she feels “lonesome” without him, she has no one to love and share with, etc.

Recently, in a phone conversation, she said something unprecedented. She was speaking to encourage me (we have always been our own two-member mutual encouragement society) but she was also speaking of herself:  “Only Jesus can be the other half of our mould.” Coming from one who, until age 80, had never been alone and has for many years grieved the terrible absence of her dearest friend, this was a startling “word.”  It was something I already knew, of course, but, like many spiritual truths, had forgotten for the moment, caught up in whatever I was caught up.

It gives hope and joy to remember that we cannot find our fulfillment in anything but the Lord Himself – not in His gifts, His plans for us, etc. – because, in seeking our completion in Him, we have a sure promise of finding it.

As much to self (now as I return to Carmel) as to my friend and other hearts filled with longing for the Lord:  Let the Lord be the “other half of your mould,” in all things.  Let Him complete you and fill your emptiness which He created specifically to be filled with Himself.

It is time to go now, to exit the world and enter the monastery once again.  Will I persevere this time in keeping the eyes of my heart on the Lord, in looking to Him alone for the fulfillment of my longing?  And, in so doing, will it become clear to me that Carmel is His way for me?  On verra.

Lord, show me Thy way, and make me willing to follow it.    ~ St. Bridget

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Therefore, My Good Beloved Sister



Therefore, my good beloved sister, make a review of your life.  Examine in what manner you have passed your life.  Recall the innumerable benefactions of our Savior Jesus Christ and His sweetest Mother, and be patient in the temptations that come.  

 ~ Elder Joseph the Hesychast

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Silence Descends on a Blogger’s World

Roaming the web, one comes across abandoned blogs from time to time, not half-hearted and unfulfilled attempts at blogging, but blogs well developed and tended, revealing the energies of the blogger’s heart, thoughtfully updated week after week and month after month and into which the blogger has spilled a part of himself.  Suddenly, on a day that seems like any other day to the readership, the blog falls silent.  The weeks and months pass and it becomes apparent the site is abandoned and the owner gone away. 

A certain mystery and poignancy hang over such a blog.  One wonders what became of the blogger and his world,  the world he had taken such care to share with others, the world in the midst of which he was living, apparently so fully, when his blogging ceased.  Recently, with the thought of writing a little on the subject of “Holy Poverty,” I was googling this term and was led to just such a blogger. 

Her name is Meredith and her blog was called “Holy Clutter.”*  She started blogging in August 2009 and continued for eighteen months, making a total of 65 posts before ceasing in November 2010, on the first day of Advent. 

What happened to Meredith?  Did she succumb to illness?  Did an accident take her life?  Was there some other tragedy in her family, involving perhaps her husband or her children (she was 36 and excepting another child when she made her last post), a tragedy that took the heart out of her, making blogging and everything else in life seem like a mouthful of dust?

Or, being a Catholic Christian, did the coming of another Advent inspire in her a decision to withdraw from the virtual world and devote herself to the three-dimensional life of her family?  Her very first post shared thoughtful misgivings about her own motiviations for blogging and the effects it might have on her and her relationship with her family:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Stripping To Bone
A blogger begins with herself–examining, creating, sharing.
Before long, you build Community. Rejoice in the give and take.
The community widens. You gain Audience, and with it, a thrilling sense of worth. People lift you to a pedestal you hope you didn’t build.
Are you the woman in the kitchen, or the woman on the screen? At the low times, it is seductive to believe your own press.
Your children call “Mama!” and you listen, half-eared, mentally spinning another post. Crop the better moments, dwell on what is good, and leave the dirty dishes for another time.
I choose to step away.
I offer it up, Lord. Reshape me. Make my faith visible where it matters most–at home.

For Meredith and all other such believers blogging for the Lord in cyberspace, who open the windows of their hearts a little and for a time to virtual passersby and then silently disappear:  my hope is that a life deeper, fuller, and richer than a virtual life can ever have been, is yours now and leading you Home.


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Where Less Is More: A Carmelite’s Cell

What are the contents of a nun’s cell in Carmel today?  In one monastery that I know of, they are as follows:

A bed consisting of three trestles, a board laid over the trestles, a straw mattress on top of the board, and bedding on the mattress, including a heavy, rather flat straw pillow and, perhaps, another more normal pillow.  Each morning when the bed is made, all is covered over with a brown spread.  If one has a small crucifix (I have that belonging to my maternal grandmother)this may be laid on the pillow or bed.

There is no closet or wardrobe and there are no hooks on the walls.  Nothig is hung.  Everything is folded.  There are no drawers so night clothes and any little “extras” are folded and stored under the bed pillow during the day.  At night the habit is folded and placed on the stool which has been moved to the foot of the bed.

The stool is moved about the cell for different purposes.  It is placed near the door of the cell on days when the delivery of clean laundry is expected.  It is moved to the desk for working or writing or reading there.  At night, it is put at the foot of the bed to receive the habit.  When not in use, it is moved to a neutral place against the wall.

The desk is a petite table, of moderate length but rather shallow and without a drawer.  It is placed (and in some cells built) under the window to take the benefit of the daylight.  A box fixed to the wall near the desk serves as a bookshelf.  It may be kept filled and can hold about seven books.  A “carton” sits on the floor, also near the desk, and is the closest thing one has to a desk drawer.  Of heavy black cardboard with a ribbon to tie it closed at the top, it is made by the Sisters in their bookbindery on the upper floor.  It contains a Sister’s writing materials – stationery, pens and pencils, etc.

Under the bed is a basin for washing in the cell in the morning and at night.  During the day it is a storage place for our towel and other materials related to personal hygiene.  Also kept under the bed is a commode, a plastic bucket with a handle and lid which is used at night in the cell and emptied in the morning.

In a corner is a tiny triangular shelf just big enough to hold two jugs, one larger than the other.  We fill both jugs with water at night upon retiring to our cells.  The larger jug is for hot water and the smaller for cold.  The hot water we use to wash with at night and the cold in the morning.

The lighting in the cell is from a naked bulb either hanging from the ceiling or fixed to the wall, put on or off by pulling a string.  The heating is from large round pipes running along the base of two of the walls which, in winter, are kept on from about 3:00 in the afternoon until 9:00 or 10:00 at night.

On the wall, normally near or over the bed, is a large black cross (not a crucifix, as there is no corpus).  Near the bed or the door hangs a plain brown ceramic holy water font which we may drape with a rosary we have brought with us (my paternal grandmother’s rosary hangs over the font in our cell).  Elsewhere on the walls there are two or three religious prints.  These are already hanging when the postulant arrives.  With the permission of her Prioress, she may exchange these for images she has brought with her.  (I brought a holy card of our Lady of Mount Carmel in an inlaid frame, both brought back from Paris during World War I by my paternal grandfather as a gift to my grandmother. 

(I also brought a photograph of St. Therese which I had had for many years, the size of a large postcard, behind glass, perhaps the most popular image of her, gazing directly into the camera.  It is cropped so that it is mostly face with some veil and laid over a red background (now faded) for martyrdom.  At the bottom of it, is an image of her signature, Therese de l’Enfant-Jesus et la Ste Face, and her words, “Le bonne Dieu ne peut pas inspirer des desires irrealisables.”)

This is the basic inventory of a Carmelite’s cell.  As one settles in, other things start to appear.  For example, I was given a bit of artwork to do and received some supplies for this purpose.  At one point, the Novice Mistress and I were sorting out music to sing for Christmas recreations and so for several weeks I had more books than could be contained in our little shelf.  As I had a bit of difficulty getting used to moving about in the darkness of the cell at night I was also given a “torch” to use until I no longer needed it.  Apart from incidentals like these, the cell remains simple and bare.

Why is it important for a Carmelite to live in such material simplicity?  Why does she have the attraction and the will to live this way?  Because the richness and beauty and glory she longs for she seeks in God Alone.  His Triune beauty and glory are ever indwelling within the enclosure of her own heart and it is this richness that becomes all her treasure in Carmel.

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The Glory of God, Man Fully Alive

Some years ago, in the days of my first novitiate, while suffering through certain spiritual trials, my Novice Mistress told me a story.  I don’t remember the source, whether from the desert fathers or from Zen Buddhism (although it was probably the latter because it is not intrinsically Christian), but it went something like this:

A master was walking one day with his disciple. They were nearing the edge of a cliff.  The master asked the disciple to step forward and jump.  The disciple was at first shocked and petrified with fear but as the master spoke to him further, encouraging him to trust and not to allow his fear to prevent him from proceeding or perhaps even, if he could, to proceed without fear, the disciple began to grow calm.  At last, quietly, he took a step forward and lept over the edge. He hurtled downward through the air and hit the ground below, breaking into a million pieces. And then he got up, and walked away.

In this story, the “master” is the Master, the LORD of whom we are disciples (or, at least this was the meaning intended by my Mistress).  This Master encourages us to put our trust in Him.  At certain critical junctures in our spiritual journey He asks us to step forward in faith assuring us that, despite the risks and the fear it may inspire in us, this leap of faith will not be to our destruction. 

Instead, it will be to the destruction in us of what must die in order for the new man to be born.  What will die is the husk of the “false self,” torn away from the kernal of the true person, made in the image of God.  Agreeing to the action of the Holy Spirit, we leap from the cliff and are “destroyed,” our false self breaking into a millions pieces on the ground so that the whole man can stand up and walk away, in the glory of God and fully alive.

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A Little Park in Paris on an Autumn Afternoon

CAUTION:  This post is related to the purpose of this blog not even by the furthest stretch of the imagination.

On a recent morning, I went briefly to Paris.  Starting another long session of difficult work in the dentist’s chair, I was told to close my eyes and go someplace lovely in my mind.  Permitted thus to use the power of my imagination (which, in other circumstances, can be a destructive plague to me) I immediately     wandered off.

Finding myself near the Gare St. Lazare, I welcomed the chance of a return visit to my favorite city garden of many years ago, the petite park, Square Louis XVI, surrounding the Chapelle Expiatoire.  The history of this place lends it a somewhat melancholy and reflective air while its diminuative size gives a sense of intimacy, conducive to the sharing of confidences with a friend or simply sitting idly and at rest, enjoying a sense of distance from the busyness of the city outside.  

There, along the right side of the chapel complex, I take my accustomed seat with a friend on one of the old wooden benches, pleasantly worn and comfortable with their wide s-shape curves.  We watch idly as large, bright yellow leaves from the Chestnut trees flutter heavily down onto the small expanse of well-groomed grass, still emerald-green in early October.

We listen abstractedly to the muffled sounds in the street beyond the fence and shrubbery.  And we do the one thing one must do in returning to this place – we smoke Galloise from an aging packet, the contents of which were only ever smoked in Paris, in this park, on these benches and only while the yellow leaves of the Chestnut trees were dropping sweetly to the ground in the melancholy air of autumn.

We sit in deep leisure, with a sense of timelessness, while the hay-like aroma of the smoke plays in our nostrils and mingles with the scent of dying leaves.  We talk quietly about no particular thing and, as we talk, we watch the smoke ascending in swirls, sailing upward until, in wisps, it disburses above our heads.  We sit thus for a long while, until the passage of time tells us that a perfect interlude is nearing its end.  We begin to feel, every so slightly, the impetus to rise and to go, to close the window on this little bit of heaven,  to shut it like a book in which the last page has been turned.

As we put away the packet of Galloise and begin to rise from the bench I hear the grinding screech and whirr of a drill spinning and rattling full throttle in my open mouth.  Oh, dear.  It seems I have come back too soon.  But, no matter.   I remain blessed and still a bit in bliss as, hanging about me, are wisps of fragrant smoke from a Galloise cigarette.  Still lingering in the memory’s tender spot is the perfume, sweet and sad, of an autumn afternoon in a little park in Paris.

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Blessed Yoke of the Monastic Life

Every day, all day, those who have Christ at the center of their lives must make choices and decisions which, because of their faith, have much greater significance than they would otherwise.  With decisions involving one’s physical wellbeing, it is common for believers to live in a certain tension, stepping delicately backwards and forwards on a tightrope stretched between the two poles of self-forgetfulness and mindfulness of the needs and wants of the body. 

For those living within religious life instead of in the world, the vow or practice of obedience, if lived with humility, has a way of resolving this kind of practical, material tension, in great part and perhaps even entirely.  It is not that, under religious obedience, there are no longer dichotomies in our life needing integration or resolution.  It is that these tensions begin to move deep into the interior.  The choices continue to be made but they begin to involve the profound inner life of the person, rather than his tangible, material life.  They begin to touch the person in the ground of his being, in that sacred place were his will resides.   

If there were a choice to be made between forgetfulness of the body and mindfulness of it, this blogger’s preference would quite naturally be for having the ability to mind the cares and fufill the needs of the body.  My actual choice, however, would have to fall to the supernatural option, that of self-forgetfulness.  This is not surprising for one who finds many of her heroes among the desert fathers, of old in the east and today on Mount Athos and elsewhere. 

In their caves and huts they dwell continually with the Lord, drawing nearer to Him day by day and all (awful though this may sound to our refined sensibilities) without regular baths or dentistry!  We may see their lives as an impossible spiritual fantasy for ourselves as the reality of our own lives makes entirely different demands of us.  This may be so but our lives still offer us choices that “speak” to the simplicity, poverty and godly self-forgetfulness of these strugglers in the desert, choices fostering our ability to detach, to let go and move deeper into the freedom of God and a loving union with Him.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of the body as a “temple of the Holy Spirit.”  Indeed our body is this but St. Paul introduces this image immediately after cautioning his audience against immorality, saying that the “immoral man sins against his own body.”  So, the image of the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit is in the context of sin and the negative precept of refraining from sin.  It is not part of an admonition to believers to mind their bodily strength and health.  The “glorification” of the body of which St. Paul speaks is the glory that comes not from the physical prowess obtained in the gymnasium of his day but in the avoiding of sin and cleaving to God.

Perhaps little different from the time of St. Paul, we live now in a culture that tends to enshrine the body in a temple not of God but of the self.  Believers, atheists, agnostics and people generally hostile to belief – all alike take great care with their bodies, getting exercise, consuming vitamins and other supplements, visiting doctors and dentists, faithfully ensuring that all available pro-active and preventive maintenance work is done. 

For the believer living in the world under his own rule, this is not instrinsically wrong nor is it even inappropriate.  He does need to take care, however, that, in managing these material and practical elements of his life, his understanding remains sound and his motivations pure.  He must be devoted to the strengthening exercise of discernment so that the choices he makes are supportive of his faith and suited to his state in life. 

This is for the believer still in the world.  Once a person crosses over to religious life and, in particular, to the monastery, the picture changes entirely.  The yoke of the monastic life (in the West, codified in the form of the “evangelical counsels”) begins immediately to act on the person and the power of the supernatural lens through which he gazes is intensified.  He should give thanks for this change in his state in life and embrace the possibility it allows him to free himself from concerns and wants that, in his former life, were appropriate but now are an impediment on his journey to God.

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