A LISTENING HEART – The contemplative life

December 24, 2007

A LISTENING HEART – The contemplative life

God, always already there

One of the most impressive messages from our Carmelite saints, has been the realization that God loves us first, as we are. Thinking they were looking for an absent God and that life was a pursuit of God, they returned from their efforts testifying that God had been pursuing them all along. That the story of our lives is not our search for God, but God’s desire for, and pursuit of, us. The hungers of our heart, the desire that we are, is the result of God first desiring us and coming to us in love. In time, we may be so transformed that we live with a consonance of desire, our human desire fully participating in God’s desire.

On one occasion, Teresa of Avila heard these words in prayer: “Seek yourself in me!” She asked a number of her friends and directors in Avila the meaning of “Seek yourself in me!” Among the respondents were a lay spiritual director, Francisco de Salcedo, her brother Lorenzo de Cepeda, and John of the Cross. These gentlemen met to discuss their responses but Teresa was absent. So they sent their replies to her.

In imitation of academic sparring sometimes practiced in the schools, Teresa playfully determined to find fault with each answer and gently mock it. We do not have their responses, but we do have her rejections of their answers. One respondent, Francisco de Salcedo, quoted St. Paul frequently, and then closed his response with a humble statement about having “written stupidities”. Teresa then chastised him for characterizing the words of St. Paul as “stupidities”. She said she had a mind to hand him over to the Inquisition.

John of the Cross must have responded that “Seek yourself in me” required that she be dead to the world in order to seek herself in God. Teresa’s answer to him was a prayer to be saved from people as spiritual as John of the Cross. His answer was good for members of the Company of Jesus, she said, but not for those she had in mind. Life is not long enough if we have to die to the world before we find God. Teresa pointed to the gospels and observed that Mary Magdalene was not dead to the world before she met Jesus; nor was the Canaanite woman dead to the world before she asked for crumbs from the table. And the Samaritan woman had not died to the world before encountering Jesus at the well. She was who she was and Jesus accepted her. Teresa closed her response to John of the Cross by thanking him for answering what she did not ask! (8)

Teresa’s point is, God meets us and accepts us where we are in our lives. We have been accepted all along. The challenge for us is to accept the acceptance, and allow that accepting Presence to change us. The reality of that embrace is the basis for our prayer. To pray, then, is to step trustingly into that relationship as the foundation of our lives. It is easy to talk about, but very difficulty to live day by day.

One theologian summed up Teresa’s message in this way: a faithful and perduring attentiveness to our depths and centre is the best cooperation we can give to God who is reorienting our life.

Lured by love

The Carmelite tradition can be misread. Carmel could easily appear to be saying to people that a rigorous asceticism will achieve union with God; that the idols of our lives can be toppled with our courageous efforts and isolated, rugged living. When in fact, Carmel’s message to people is the necessity for God’s grace, and the good news that grace is always available. All we need do is open our lives to it.

In The Ascent of Mount Carmel John of the Cross offers several counsels for detaching from the idols which have fooled us into their service. The counsels at first seem unnecessarily restrictive and even imbalanced. But John is quick to point out that willpower and asceticism alone cannot free the heart enslaved to idols. The idol, at least, is providing some nourishment for the heart hungering for God. The idol perhaps is providing some joy, some identity, some security to the famished pilgrim. On its own, the heart is not going to be able to tear itself away from this nourishment and go into an affective vacuum and await the Lord.

John testifies that it is only when the heart has a better offer can it let go of what it has been clinging to for dear life. Only when God enters a life and kindles a love deep in the person that lures the person past lesser loves can a person open his or her grasp of idols. With the invitation of such a love then, what was impossible before (letting go of one’s grasp on idols) becomes gently possible as idols melt away. The heart then is going from love to love. Because John is convinced that God is the soul’s centre, the task is not to find a distant God but to awake to the reality of a God who is “always already there”.

“Everything is a grace”, said Thérèse of Lisieux. She expressed this conviction while dying of tuberculosis, surrounded by a spirituality which deeply mistrusted human nature, believed that we had to merit God’s love, and called for “victim souls” to appease God’s wrath. Nonetheless, when told she could no longer receive Holy Communion, she simply said it was a grace when she could receive, and now that she cannot receive, it is still a grace. “Everything is a grace!”

Thérèse was convinced that God was always present to her, that God loved her, and that this love was freely given; it was absolutely unmerited by her. When speaking of merit, she simply said “I have none”.

Thérèse knew about God’s justice, and she was aware that devout people often offered themselves as victims to that justice so that sinners may be spared and God appeased. This God was not familiar to Thérèse. None of the faces of God in her life demanded appeasement, not her mother, or her father, not Pauline, nor Celine, nor Marie, not the God the Hebrew Bible who loved little ones, not Jesus who called little ones to him, not the Beloved in the Song of Songs or in the poetry of John of the Cross. She believed that God is just, but that this justice will be well aware of our littleness.

Thérèse of Lisieux was once described as “Vatican II in miniature”. The recent attention paid to her message reminds us that priority should be given not to our merits and efforts, but to living with confidence and trust. Thérèse begins her autobiography with St. Paul’s words to the Romans: “So it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.” (9)

Thérèse anticipated today’s theology which understands grace as uncreated grace, the loving, healing presence of the Father, Son, and Spirit. When we speak of contemplation, we are simply encouraging an openness to this freely given love. God is continually coming toward us inviting us more deeply into our lives, into a wider freedom, and into a loving relationship. Contemplation is being open to that transforming love, no matter how it is approaching.

Contemplation re-focused

One of the recent developments in the understanding of the Carmelite charism has been the re-locating of contemplation among our priorities. We had always spoken about prayer, community, and ministry as the three corners of our charism. Contemplation was seen as a higher or deeper form of prayer and, at times in our history, ministry and contemplation appeared to be in competition. However, here is a description of contemplation found in the Carmelite Order’s recent document on formation:

…a progressive and continual transformation in Christ worked in us by the Spirit, by which God attracts us toward Himself by means of an interior process which leads from a dispersed periphery of life to the more interior cell of our being, where He dwells and unites us to Himself. (10)

We are understanding now that contemplation is an activity which grounds and links prayer, community, and ministry. The door is prayer, but God’s love is offered us in various ways in those realities of our lives and one can enter into this contemplative openness to God, in other words live a life of authentic faith, hope, and love, through any of those three avenues. They are not pitted one against another, but they are windows to the transcendent reality at the depth of our lives and offer contact with that Mystery.

It is important to stress this perspective because Carmel has had 800 years of ministry in response to the Church and God’s people, and, God-willing, will have many more centuries of unselfish service. And none of it is inimical to a contemplative life. Many a Carmelite has been transformed into a more loving person through engagement with God’s people in various ministries.

Archbishop Romero was transformed and converted by God’s love not only in the solitude of his prayer, but in his engagement with the Lord in history, in the messy efforts of the people to find their place at the banquet of life. Contemplation should be the deepest source of compassion for our world. The contemplative is one who has been led into the absolute poverty and powerlessness of a soul apart from God. The contemplative learns to wait in hope with all who wait in hope for God’s mercy. In this contemplative listening one learns to say, “We poor!”

Our contemplative living, our openness to God’s love coming toward us in good times and bad is the gift we can give to others. What happened in the lives of Carmel’s saints, what is happening in the lives of Carmelites today, is happening in everyone’s life. We witness best by keeping a focus on who we are: a contemplative fraternity living in the midst of the people.

Speaking to the Order’s General Congregation in 1999 a German Carmelite stressed this contemplative charism:

I strongly believe that our first task is to put quite a bit of our energy, time, and personal talents and qualities into this process of a growing relationship with the God of life and love. Our personal human and spiritual growth as well as our future as an Order depend on how much we as individuals and communities yield to and develop this intimate friendship with God so that he can transform us according to the image of Christ, acting through us for the sake of the Church and the world. (11)


The story of the Beloved coming toward the lover to lure her heart into a deep union is the archetypal story Carmelites have rehearsed time and time again. Our lives cannot be wrestled into submission unless led by love. We cannot release our grasp on our idols unless God kindles a deeper love in the soul. The heart then has somewhere to go and can trustingly let go of its attachments, its addictions, its idols. God’s love, always present and offered, lures the heart into God’s wilderness, “deeper into the thicket”,(12) and there encounters the suffering of the world. Our contemplative stance does not remove us from the world’s cares but opens us to the full force of its struggle.


Questions for reflection:

Like “a watch in the night”, do I keep alert to the approach of God’s love?

Where in my life am I called to a deeper listening?

Where are the continual challenges to my mind and heart?

Are these challenges invitations to surrender more deeply to God’s transforming love?

Among the signs of God’s love at work are a growing trust in the mercy of God, and a growing freedom from what enslaves the heart.

Do I experience that greater trust?

Am I aware of a greater freedom?

Have I really surrendered myself to the Mystery at the core of my life, or do I continue to struggle to secure my own existence?

Have I seen the face of Christ in the face of the people I serve?

Can I recognize the invitation of God’s transforming love as it approaches cloaked in a culture?

In my community and in my ministry, how can I help create conditions for a “listening heart”?