Life is filled to the brim with gifts. Many pass by us without us even noticing them! This is sad because acknowledging life for what it is, namely an extravaganza of gifts from heaven, would definitely make us change our attitude in life. The opposite of Christian life is not transgression but complaining.
While in Malta I had the enormous gift to attend a funeral mass of a Discalced Carmelite nun. She was 71 years old when she died. She had joined Carmel when she was 24 years old, living forty six years (yes, 46 years) enclosed between the four walls of the cloister. Remarkable, no?
She was a bright, charming woman. Unwavering in her love towards Him who loved her from all eternity. When her spiritual director and confessor visited her in her small Carmelite room (‘the chamber of love’ as the Carmelites endearingly call their room), she was already very sick.
Before he left, she asked Father whether he could ‘please turn slightly the statue of Jesus’ that she had on the bedside table, ‘so that I can fix my eyes on Him more easily’. In this simple phrase lies a powerful secret. The secret of what life is all about!
George Bernanos is one of the most original and polemical writer of the Catholic Church. The Dialogues of the Carmelites written in 1949 is a screenplay about sixteen nuns martyred during the French revolution and was the basis for an opera by Francis Poulenc in 1957.
Perceptively, he places these words in the mouth of the former prioress of the Compiègne Carmelites, Mother Henriette of Jesus: “We, the cloistered nuns, are not an enterprise for mortification or the preservation of the virtues, we are houses of prayer; whoever does not believe in prayer cannot but take us for impostors or parasites.”
In fact the French radicals believed what today the secular mind believes, namely that these sisters are either deluded or intimidated. They are a waste. In this play, the city authorities come to the monastery and cross-examine each sister as to the motives of their vocation and to offer freedom to anyone who wished it. None of them accepted!
They must be afraid to speak, argued the authorities. So they placed armed guards as sentinels within the cloister and again the sisters are interrogated. When Mother Henriette’s turn comes, she simply hands them a written response that she asked them to read aloud.
“How false are the judgments that the world makes of us! Its profound ignorance disapproves of our promises; all that it adorns itself with is but pure vanity. Its only reality is the sorrow that devours it. I despise its pride, I consider its hatred an honor; and I prefer my chains to its spurious freedom. O day of eternal celebration, O day forever holy, when, vowing myself to Carmel I won the heart of God.
“O beloved and precious bonds I strengthen you each day; all that the earth can offer me is worthless in my eyes; your sarcasm, worldlings, compared to my joy is a dead giveaway: that joy outweighs all the cares to which your soul is prey.
Startling twist of perspective. The secular mind pities these women. They pity us! We think they are missing on life. They believe we have messed up all our priorities in life. We try to hard to snatch a few moments of gratification and pleasure out of life. They claim they have found the secret of a fulfilling life. We are delighted because we do not have exterior walls that close us in. They assert that the interior walls that hem us in are terribly suffocating!
We believe that happiness consists in having more, enjoying more, achieving more, being more and more liberated. They believe that the happiness consists in living a life of intimacy with Jesus Christ and they make this visible by renouncing to all the trappings that life offers to live just the core of Christianity – serving the Lord and living in his loving presence. Thus they fertilize the world with the beauty of Christ.
They say NO to going out, to getting married, to having money of their own, to do their own will, to live independently so that their YES to His love becomes more obvious to all who want to see.
Smiling, Sister Josephine Koeppel of Saint Theresa, 84, a Carmelite Sister from the US, said: “I have everything I had before and everything I thought I was missing. It is a totally satisfying life. I just wish it were possible for young people to know that God put someplace on the world, a place where you can really be totally satisfied.”
When a rather naive Carmelite nun, Sister Catherine asked Saint John of the Cross why, when she passed beside the pond in the garden, the frogs always jumped into the water and hid, he answered that the pond was the place where they felt most secure. And he immediately added, “You should do the same as well: escape creatures and throw yourself deep into the center which is God and hide yourself in Him!”
This is the secret that eludes so many of us…What a pity!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.