Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Our Holy Father Saint Elijah

The feast of Saint Elijah is celebrated July 20th in the Carmelite calendar.

Saint Elijah was a prophet of the Old Testament. His story is recorded in the First and Second Book of Kings. He is also acknowledged as the spiritual father of Carmelites because the early hermits of Mount Carmel lived together near the spring of Elijah (wadi en-Siah)in Mount Carmel to follow his way of life.

He is known for his spirit of courage when he confronted the prophets of Baal for a showdown to determine who is the one and true God of Israel.
“ How long will you straddle the issue? If Baal is god, follow him. If it is the Lord, then follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21). The events that followed were so dramatic that it became the most repeated story in the Carmelite tradition.
Elijah was both a man of prayer and action. He lived in Mount Carmel to savor the delights of deep contemplation and left it only when sent by God to do His bidding. He was a man of no compromise, a man who spoke the truth when it wasn’t popular, a man who allowed himself to be guided by his zeal for the Lord God of Hosts. He was also a man of deep compassion and sensitivities. When the son of the widow of Zarapath, whose hospitality Elijah was enjoying during the drought in Israel died, Elijah performed a miracle of raising him back to life. He felt the human feeling of sympathy and did what he could to comfort the widow. He wasn’t always brave. When Queen Jezebel sent her men to hunt him down, after Elijah slaughtered most of her false prophets, at the showdown in Mount Carmel, Elijah went into hiding and despair and begged God to take his life (1 King 19:1-4).But true to his calling, he continued his mission, prompted by God and nourished by the food from heaven. After Elijah was taken up to heaven by fiery chariots (2Kings 2: 9-12), the prophet Elisha succeeded him.

The story of Elijah is always an inspiring one for me. I think he is very relevant to us in our modern age. The basic needs of the human heart never really change. The ways of expressing these needs may vary because of culture and time, but the realities of thirst for the supernatural, search for truth, dissatisfaction with the false gods of power, wealth, ambitions and prestige, longing for a deeper respect for human life, the need to call on a power greater than our own, experiences of fear and despair when faced with forces greater than our own, remain the same. Faced as we are in this modern era with materialism, secularism and intellectual atheism, we most often straddle important issues of our day and adopt a “politically correct” and overly simplistic approach to life’s most important questions.
Elijah did not find solutions to his problems by himself. He allowed himself to be filled and guided by God in moments when he sought Him in prayer. He did not weigh the consequences of his actions in the sense of acting only when there was assured victory. He was totally abandoned, docile and trusting that God would finish what he has began. Even in his dark night of spirit he was docile and humble. He was not afraid to lend a voice to his despair and to acknowledge the fact that he was afraid and inadequate. He desired death because the fight became wearisome. He felt abandoned thinking he was the only one left among the followers of Yahweh. He was ready to give up. How could this chosen man of God feel the way he did? This man who left everything of the world, lived in solitude and deep intimacy with God, drank the wine of deep contemplation? How did he end up the way he did, in despair, and almost suicidal?
Yet, it was through this fear that true courage was born. It was through this emptiness that the cup was filled. It was in this nothingness of man that God was manifested as God.

As Carmelites, I pray that the spirit of our holy father Saint Elijah be given us. His double spirit of prayer and action is the hallmark of true Carmelite spirituality. In our age of intellectual rationalizations, the voice of this great prophet is once again heard: How long will we straddle the issue? If we believe in God then we must follow him unreservedly, with docility and courage, and with holy indifference.  What does holy indifference mean?  It means not counting the cost, not acting only because of assured success, not worrying too much about the good opinions of others and not being too preoccupied with results whether they be good or bad as we define them to be good or bad.   We accept the fact that we will never understand everything that happens to us despite our greatest and honest efforts. We will constantly fall into despair and fear, but we can rise again and be filled by the grace of God. This was the story of Elijah. This may be our story also.

The clip below is a short introduction to the contemplative life of the Order. It is not the entirety of Carmel. Carmel has many streams, but only One Source. That Source is God. Carmelite spirituality is lived today in the double-spirit of St. Elijah, action and contemplation or better yet, contemplation in action. The Carmelite spirituality is lived in the cloister, hermitages and in the apostolic ministries of education, healthcare, foreign missions and in the hearts and souls of men and women living in the world.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Martyrs of Compiegne ("Dialogues of the Carmelites")

I saw the Opera "Dialogues of the Carmelites" on Broadway a long time back. The production is based on the play by Georges Bernanos and set into an operatic production by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). The play was based on the true story of sixteen Discalced Carmelite Nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution. Here is a short historical account I lifted out of the Carmelite Liturgy of the Hours:

"As the French Revolution entered its worst days, sixteen Discalced Carmelites from the Monastery of the Incarnation in Compiegne offered their lives as a sacrifice to God, making reparation to him and imploring peace for the Church. On June 24, 1794, they were arrested and thrown into prison. Their happiness and resignation were so evident that those around them were also encouraged to draw strength from God's love. They were condemned to death for their fidelity to the Church and their religious life and for their devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary. Singing hymns, and having renewed their vows before the Superior, Teresa of St. Augustine, they were put to death in Paris on July 17, 1794."

I confess that I have known the story of the Martyrs of Compiegne for the length of time I have known Carmel.  There were many lines in the Broadway production which spoke to me directly. The protagonist in this story was a woman called Blanche. She was the daughter of the Marquis De la Force. After the death of her mother, being caught up in the panic surrounding the French Revolution, Blanche was forever sealed with an inordinate fear of death and suffering. Even a mere shadow of a servant throws her into a panic and nervous breakdown. She decided to enter the cloister with the hope of finding the peace and security of the cloister walls and to hopefully experience a respite from all her fears. The Mother Prioress strongly reminded Blanche that the cloister was not a refuge to protect them. "Our Order does not protect us, we must protect the Order!" I love this line because it brings home the idea that an Order's charism is preserved through the efforts of its members. We can remain truly Carmelites to the extent we want to be and to the extent that we work at it.

Once inside the monastery, she met a fellow Novice Sr. Constance, who was her opposite in character. Sr. Constance was an enthusiastic, cheerful young novice who welcomed sufferings and nurtured the idea of martyrdom as an offering to God. She had a premonition of dying young. Quite a clash of attitude. But this difference in characters provided me the most uplifting plot in the story as these two opposing personalities were welded together in the scaffold, singing with ONE voice, the hymn of courage. It was a beautiful and inspiring spiritual twist and ending for me. During some early scenes leading up to the climax of the execution, the Mother Prioress was exhorting her spiritual daughters to be brave in facing whatever God had in store for them. But she tempered this exhortation with the line, "Prayer is our duty, martyrdom is the fruit." In other words, for me it meant, "let us go about our business of prayer for that is what brought us to Carmel, and leave God the free hand to grant us the glory of martyrdom, if that is what pleases Him." In other words, we should not seek martyrdom as an end in itself. She reiterated a spiritual truth that aspiring to great things can sometimes be a sign of spiritual pride. The Mother Prioress tried to temper Sr. Constance's longing for martyrdom by words such as these. In this instance, the Mother Prioress stood as a true daughter of St. Teresa of Avila who in her lifetime said many times, "our true martyrdom is the martyrdom of conquering self."

The story was the triumph of grace over nature. It was the story of how Sr. Blanche, a fear-ridden woman, ended up choosing death over freedom because she was given the strength for it in the end. Courage is not the absence of fear but embracing the object feared with the end result of overcoming it. It was the story of how God accomplished great things in simple and obscure women who never sought to win the crown of martyrdom but succeeded in obtaining it.   The Reign of Terror ended a few days after the execution of the Carmelites. We know for certain that their sacrifice was well received by Almighty God and bore fruit for France and the Church.

You can buy the book "To Quell the Terror" by William Bush and distributed by Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

The Catholic Church will celebrate the feast of Mary under her title of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 16th. This is a very special day for all Carmelites as they honor Mary as their Patroness.
This is a very special day for me because this day marks the day I was led to a deeper appreciation of the Mother of God and my Catholic faith. I still vividly remember, and can accurately recall, the words of the priest that gave me my first brown scapular on July 16, 1984, "Wear this and call on the Virgin Mary." Everyone experiences life-changing events, this was mine.