‘Nothing is commonplace, we do not live in these things, we go beyond them’ (Elizabeth of the Trinity)
Time can be a noisy thing! There have been countless dates spinning around our heads of late. Dates before ‘lockdown’; dates of ‘lockdown’; dates after ‘lockdown’. Dates when one sector of our public life returns, followed by another sector on some date following that one!! Dates we have missed out on; dates we have re-scheduled; dates we have lost track of; dates we have sought to ‘memorialize’ in our own way, in our own space, Carmelite or otherwise. We grip tighter our paper and our technological diaries to record where we might be in present time. Our days, weeks and months all seem to be in a muddle. Time is our framework, and time, deadlines, and targets can be a noisy thing amidst a pandemic.
Saturday 18th July is a date that I firmly marked in my mental diary some time ago. Not with any private event, engagement or appointment in mind – we remain ‘under restrictions’ after all – but to put some moments of tranquillity aside to consider in more detail the life and the works of one of the Church’s most recently canonised figures, the French Carmelite - musician, poet, author, nun - Elizabeth of the Trinity (1880-1906). For Elizabeth, it is by a ‘wholly simple movement…. an interior silence’ that we can approach God and become ‘transformed’ in such a way as to go ‘beyond’ the present, beyond any restlessness, to be both properly informed and prepared for the future.
As I begin to write this, the UK is to enter its twelfth week of lockdown in response to the ‘coronovirus pandemic’. These recent months have seemed to pass with a mixture of profound sadness and deep human anxiety alongside the gentle stirrings of spring. We have watched the full growth of blossoms, of flowers and shrubs, adapted our patterns of home and working life and lost count of the daily ‘government briefings’! It has been a Springtide and Eastertide of contrasts, sharp distinctions at the forefront of our mind around the frailty and the fragility of life; yet ever present are the loving signs of tenderness and belonging in our natural surroundings.
In terms of both the natural and the human world it has come to feel like dimensions of our understanding, our awareness and our shared experience are being stretched. For some this has been frightening, for others revealing. For many the turbulence and the personal loss will feel unbearable.
There are also significant contrasts now with where we were as a nation in the not too distant past. The thorny issue of Brexit led to an explosion of loquacious contributions from commentators and political figures, a fractious and troubled population ready to lay bare their opinions and verdicts that divided family, friends and communities (including our churches). There were trends set by people on all sides of the debate that seemed only to deepen the divide and sow further tensions. People went to the polls four times in under five years. Claims and counter claims about ‘truth’ and ‘deceit’ became part of our discourse, our mental and emotional calculations and daily news feed. Social media was awash with judgement and intransigence. Our country became noisier, and in such circumstances we might even feel that we too carry into conversation and communication our own ‘baggage’ of commotion and noise. Surely this must limit our receptiveness to the Spirit of God?
Today, the quiet of city streets, of town shopping centres and transport hubs have caught our attention again. Parks and open spaces have become places of solace to escape these confined times and a greeting or a brief conversation, from a safe two metres apart, seems a special thing once more. People are striving to keep safe, to keep fit and to keep optimistic. They are distant from one another, but ever ready to extend the hand of human connection, over ‘Zoom’, over the garden fence, or over an agreed Thursday evening show of solidarity for our key workers by a round of clapping.
Faith brings its ever watchful eye into focus in such circumstances. There is so much human goodness to celebrate and to observe. Individuals have spontaneously signed up to support vulnerable members of their community. Charities, civic groups and foodbanks are adjusting their approach to reach those most in need.
Captain Tom leads the way on sponsored events. Each one of us offers words (…a collective prayer perhaps?) of gratitude for the dedication and the commitment of the medical professionals, the doctors, the nurses, the care workers, the cleaners, those on whom we depend to meet the challenge of survival in a dark and a challenging world. ‘Love of neighbour’ is alive and well. Faith has observed it clear in these recent weeks amid the storm.
Yet, although streets and town centres are quieter, there are new pre-occupations, considerations and a different sort of noise beginning to surface. Our family and community life has perhaps changed irreversibly – hopefully for the better – as we become more conscious that ‘interdependence’ and ‘collaboration’ are not just idealistic terms, but are a means of survival. Our relationship with nature has possibly become intensified and we have explored new hobbies and new ventures. However, there is the noise of real ‘worry’ about the long term ramifications of the virus, a further outbreak, the strain on our health service over winter, future economic and employment security. There is maybe some fear around a certain level of human disconnect continuing with restricted movement and travel. There is the worry about the impact on our children, on their educational prospects, on their mental health. Then there is the ongoing shockwave of the sheer number of fatalities over these past few months in the UK. Each one a unique life, a unique soul. Each one, in some hidden way, still informing the lives and the direction of others. In a care home close to where I live in Liverpool there were six deaths from coronavirus in six days. How did it come to this? How has this unfolded? These questions still linger.
At the end of the nineteenth century, France faced huge social and political problems. After their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) the nation saw a dramatic rise in the cases of young people affected by illness and by disease, particularly by the bacterial infection known as ‘tuberculosis’. French colonial ambitions had, in reality, left large swathes of the population unprotected. In Britain, a Public Health Act had been passed in 1875, yet it was not until 1902 that a small group of determined social reformers and hygienists made their impact in France. Military recruitment had declined sharply, and political tension in Europe remained high.
Perhaps more significantly, others were taking the lead in demanding that industrialisation, social upheaval and economic growth did not leave ordinary working people behind. Pope Leo XIII, in his famous encyclical ‘Rerum Novarum’ (1891), called for political systems and structures to never forget the ‘dignity’ of the human person: ‘It is shameful and inhuman to use men as things for gain and to put no more value on them than what they are worth in muscle and energy’. Amidst war, loss of territory, fading imperial power and burgeoning social inequality, France needed a new spiritual motivation.
Born in Avant, Eastern France in 1880, Elisabeth Catez was shaken at an early stage in life by the loss of her beloved father and grandfather. ‘Anger is a brief madness’ wrote the Roman poet Horace. We read of bouts of anger and confusion that appeared to last somewhat longer in Elizabeth’s youth! Yet what we detect at this formative stage is something that stayed with Elisabeth throughout her life: namely her capacity to ‘surmount’ her own failings and fears alongside the ‘movements of the soul of the Crucified’. As a young woman she visited the sick in her neighbourhood, she sang in the church choir and she taught religion to children who worked in the factories. She had, however, set her eye on befriending Jesus, on entering the monastery at Dijon, the building of which she could see from the window of her family home. Along with her compatriot and her contemporary Therese of Lisieux she would pronounce ‘my vocation is love’.
In our own context as lay Carmelites, faith amid suffering raises many questions. From key figures and saints within the Carmelite Tradition such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, we take confidence and renew our ‘inward journey’ to where God dwells. Our rediscovery of joy and optimism around the future – the ‘Good News’ of the Gospel – could rest somewhat upon how we shall perceive a sense of ‘belonging’ or ‘spiritual security’ amidst the anxiety and the noise of the day, as we come out of this incredibly difficult period together. Society could return to its old ways. We might continue to harm the environment around us, neglect the gifts and the wisdom of our older generations and allow a rampant, divisive capitalist model to seize hold again.
Or people – individually and collectively – might be inspired to reflect anew on where to place their loyalties and their ‘allegiances’, to examine the fullness of Creation under a different light. With clearer skies and clearer heads we could embrace a source of spiritual energy for the common good, put aside enmity and any scorn or hatred of ‘the Other’. We might hear afresh the compelling words of Edith Stein, ‘…our neighbour’s spiritual need transcends every commandment’.
A helpful distinction could be made between models, or examples, of ‘belonging’ that ‘include’ and ‘exalt’ the worth of the person and models of belonging that tend to ‘depress’ or ‘exclude’ an individual. The former springs from an inner call to value life and for our potential to connect with those higher spiritual realms of ‘presence’ and of ‘unity’. It begins with the ‘dignity of people’ – affirming their place before God and the world, and strives to raise the person in their health and in their understanding.
The second model of ‘belonging’ places people in narrow allegiances and competing worldly identities. ‘Depress’ belonging can only measure human beings, their loyalties and their affiliations, by some arbitrary timescale or boundary. Some are ‘outsiders’, unrecognized, there are traits of cynicism and a limited sense of collective potential. There is restlessness and a negative spiritual energy. Frustrations even, that can boil over into anger. In contrast ‘exalt’ belonging offers mutual support, a positive, inclusive worldview out of present pain and despair.
Elizabeth of the Trinity had a fixed eye on ‘the things that are above’ (Colossians 3:2). She fully understood the ‘creative and the transforming work of the Father’. She was sustained by the Spirit and articulated so vividly her profound love for Jesus. She was absorbed in that positive sense of spiritual belonging; ‘the radiance’ of being and of longing to discover more through the Carmelite Tradition and more in direct relationship with the Trinity. Conforming to the old patterns of society, to the loud and indifferent ways of the world was not an option.
Things are unlikely to be the same; we are all touched somewhat by the events of the past few months. We must be courageous and embrace the Gospel in fresh ways after the coronavirus crisis. Through our Charism – in prayer, community and service - we are open to that possibility and we ‘receive the strength to draw people to God, who may become the praise of God’s glory’ (Elizabeth’s own mission conveyed so clearly in ‘The Rule for Third Order of Carmel’).
Conforming to the timeworn models of human behaviour, in politics and in economics, to leave many on the outer fringes of our society without care, without a home, without a job, without hope, could lead us (130 years after the ‘Rerum Novarum’ encyclical) to overlook again the worth and the ‘dignity’ inherent in human life. We must acknowledge that we live in a divided world where poverty levels and ill-health are still connected, where nationalism and greed fail to advance our common spirit. We must not forget – in fact we must actively recall – the presence of ‘goodness and truth’, and persist in asking how and where they can co-exist (…start with that ‘dwelling place’ within us, Elizabeth might urge!).
To renew ourselves in ways that conform to, and are compatible with our true nature as children of God, free of the complexities and the deceptions of modern life, that is the challenge; ‘It is the Spirit that sustains us in our spiritual combat…until we are entirely transformed’ (Ratio p.243). If we are to broaden and to stretch our understandings of ‘stillness’ and of ‘belonging’ before God, remain sensitive and informed by the ‘movements’ of the Trinity, then we can indeed be sustained in this ‘post-Covid’ era. It is to new horizons, new potential - for spiritual, moral, mental and physical health -that we as followers of Christ must look. The ‘beyond’ to which Elizabeth of the Trinity continually points us.
(Simon Monaghan : Distance Member of ‘Northumberland Carmelite Spirituality Group’)