Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Mount Carmel, Retreat of Contemplative life, Characterised in Elias - part 3

Today and through the rest of this week, we will continue reading of the lecture given by Bl Titus Brandsma O.Carm during his American lecture tour before WW2 on the subject of Carmelite spirituality and contemplative life of prayer as exemplified by St Elijah. The lecture is in practice excellent summary of the history and development of the Order and can profit those interested in Carmel history and spirituality to increase their knowledge and understanding of the spiritual richness of one of the greatest mendicant orders dedicated to Our Lady.

Exercise of Living in the Presence of God
To what degree of contemplation Elias was raised on Horeb, is an academic question. There are some who say he saw the Lord face to face as we hope to see Him in Heaven. All spiritual writers number Elias among the most favoured mystic seers. His experience on Horeb was a reflection of what he was to witness on Thabor, when the Saviour was transfigured and Moses and Elias were seen associated in His blinding glory. The Holy Scriptures say of Moses that when he descended from Sinai after his conversation with God, on his face was spread the brightness and glory of divine light, so that the Jews dared not look at his face. The same is not said of Elias, but we see him coming to the Jews, as if from another world, from the courts of Heaven, and declaring at his appearance, Vivit Deus, in culus conspectu sto. This is the foundation of his life of prayer. This living in the presence of God, this placing himself before the face of God, is a characteristic which the children of Carmel have inherited from the great Prophet: Conversatio nostra in coelis est "Our conversation is in heaven." Elias was not taken up to heaven, but here on earth lived in heaven and stood with a pious heart before God's throne: "God lives, I am standing before His face." The words of the Archangel Raphael spoken to Tobias are reminiscent of the words of Elias. After he had accompanied Tobias under the name of Azarias and brought him safely on his journey, he revealed himself as an Angel of God. "One of the seven who stood before God." "I seemed indeed to eat and drink with you, but I use an invisible meat and drink which cannot be seen by men." This realisation of the presence of God is of the very greatest significance in the religious life. We need not say that this practice of the presence of God is not confined entirely to the Order of Carmel. It is at the root of all spiritual life and though methods may differ, all spiritual writers lay it down as an essential element in religious development. But in Carmel it takes a special place. It is significant that one of the most widely known works on the practice of the presence of God was written by a simple lay brother of the Parisian Carmel (Br Lawrence of the Resurrection).The book is a slight work containing four dialogues and sixteen letters of great importance. It was published a year after his death and soon afterwards translated into English. It has since been translated into nearly every language, including Esperanto. In our own times Little Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face is the great example of this exercise of the presence of God, expressing itself in her devotion to the Holy Face. This devotion was also always characteristic of her sister, St. Teresa of Avila. In many of our old churches we may yet see traces of this Carmelite devotion to the Holy Face. The picture is painted on the big keystone of the gable of the sanctuary of our old churches at Mainz and Frankfort-on-the-Main, looking down on the choir and surrounded by appropriate texts, reminding those in prayer that the eyes of God are always upon them and that they must look upwards to the Holy Face.
Love of Solitude
But if Elias is the great type of contemplation, set deep in the heart of the ancient law, he is also a great ascetic. And in this characteristic we find a second foundation of his life of prayer, which is his love of solitude, to which he always returns and to which he is sent by God. But before endowing him so abundantly God required great renunciations. "The great hermit," says St. Jerome, "the lover of solitude, is led into the wilderness by the spirit of God." There he understands the words of the Psalmist, Sedebit solftarius et tacebit et levabit se super se. "The desolate sets himself down there and holds his peace and lifts himself above himself." We may see a third foundation of his life of prayer in his detachment from the world. If he is lifted up to God, it is at the price of sacrifice. "The Lord called him from his birthplace and from his own people." And as Our Lord after him, he tastes the bitterness of the lonely world. God tried His servant in many and difficult ways. He demanded his cooperation, but above all he asked an unquestioning faith, absolute trust in God's Providence.