Integrity Over Intensity’: A Carmelite Approach
In the beautiful surroundings of Minsteracres Retreat Centre, Northumberland, in mid-June 2018, I remember well how John Wilson of the Newcastle Carmelite Spirituality Group conveyed to me something of the many deep truths with which a Lay Carmelite vocation can open us to. He talked there of a multi-layered spiritual resource, a lineage of saints, of holy men and women, of prayer and writings, that can remain with us for the duration of our lives, not merely for fleeting moments of interest, interpretation or fascination.
This rich history of Carmelite ‘spiritual treasure’ has perhaps been our bedrock throughout the challenging months of the pandemic. When we reflect back it might even reveal how patterns did emerge. How we were drawn to the simplicity of the Charism, or to the lives and the words of particular saints and martyrs in our most solitary moments. How certain images and narratives offered hope. How we looked afresh at our own path that led us to the foothills of Mount Carmel.
Maybe our contemplative tradition genuinely helps to slow the rapid reactions of the human brain in times of crises. ‘The important thing is not to think too much but to love much. So do that which bestows you to love’. Teresa of Avila’s words from ‘An Interior Castle’ seem to place the emphasis squarely on our gentle action over any mental exertion, on a steady and dutiful imitation of Christ, on integrity over intensity.
After the 20 months or so that we have all endured, it is hard to know exactly where to start when we consider the word ‘intensity’ and the toll it can take on our fragile character. Personal circumstances, political and economic realities, impending climate catastrophe, theological concepts and lexicon? Life is intense... we can safely say! And throughout the pandemic for so many it became more intense. If anything we have learnt collectively that Intensity might start at our front door with a deep sense of isolation, of anxiety, with the prospect of shielding and reliance on our family, our neighbours and friends. That it can start can with information overload. Information saddled with emotion. Emotion saddled with some new information. The pressing worries of a single day. Even our prayer life has possibly been affected, becoming more fragmented and less intact as the months passed by and we clutched to the good and to our sense of goodness. Then, of course, there is the intensity of loss and bereavement, a sorrow overbearing, indiscriminate and debilitating. Times when we might cling only to the words of St Therese of Lisieux: ‘He whom I love is never at a loss, for without altering my path He sent me this great trial’.
The Latin verb ‘tendere’ suggests something is being strained or stretched in motion. Maybe ‘significantly overstretched’ would be a more suitable term in the context of our restless minds and our fast moving and demanding world! In stark terms, ‘intensity’ disturbs our composure or natural harmony, it shortens or stretches our energy, even our breath, and stacks up the various issues we might be grappling with one by one in our minds to a point where reality becomes distorted. Our priorities become our sole focus, leading to a false sense of our own importance, our role in life and in the lives of others, even to the point of not acknowledging another’s plight or pain. We tighten up in body as we plough on through our lists, our tasks, our plans, our agendas.
By contrast ‘integrity’ lengthens our breath and liberates our minds to see potential harmony and healing everywhere. We commit to working alongside the living source of peace and truth, guarding us against repeated cycles of imbalance and damaging behaviours. ‘Quite simply we no longer feel our weakness’, writes Elizabeth of the Trinity.
In terms of our place in the world, we are maybe playing ‘catch up’ with something of our true selves by committing to wholeness and integrity. We are growing in awareness of what JB Phillips describes as our ‘small role in God’s plan’. That acceptance takes us to new spaces that our mind can never foresee or foretell. When we feel the breeze (… think Elijah), smell the scent of flowers (… think Therese), regard the shelter of the trees (…think Jonah), when we know a ‘presence close’, we might say that we are led by the pull of integrity.
Is it not true that we have witnessed this ‘pull’ in clear and practical examples of Christian Unity during the pandemic? Across denominations and traditions people have forged spiritual bonds with one another, in their community networks, their bubbles and their hubs, and we have seen concrete displays of ‘the unity of God’s family’, which Pope Francis has called for. Integrity fosters deeper connection, be that with human beings or the natural world.
So, why do we get the two ways of ‘integrity’ and ‘intensity’ so muddled? Can it be so hard to let go of our own agendas, our influence, our judgements and sense of control on the shape and course of life’s experiences? Do we root ourselves too readily to definitions of ‘survival’ or ‘success’? Perhaps our intensity lies around what needs to be done in the face of a relentless evil and injustice in the world?
In the ‘Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds’ (Matthew 13:24-43), Jesus seems to makes it clear that both good and evil do in fact ‘grow together'. A large part of building or working towards integrity is self-care and self-worth in the face of those restricting and constricting forces. We might have lulls in our intensity, only for it to surface once more with great power and sway, leaving us with another lengthy list of priorities and pressures and those same feelings of exhaustion. The great challenge is to wake from such moments and let our sense of place and thankfulness illuminate the future, accepting the peace of God through simplicity, in solitude and with humility. To complete the earlier Teresa of Avila quotation, ‘Let go … let be … be silent, be still in gentle peace, be aware of opposites’.
Intensity amasses its own forces; the deadlines, the targets, the critical and over analytical self. It could indeed be the ‘roaring lion’ that threatens to overwhelm us. Integrity – even a partial grasp of that sense of wholeness or ‘shalom’ - sweeps us up in eternal joy. We flow freely and lovingly with life. We settle in our own skin.
‘You cannot in sound morals, condemn a man for taking care of his own integrity. It is his clear duty’, writes Joseph Conrad. Thomas Merton goes further, suggesting that level of care can in fact unveil a magnificent truth. ‘We are already one and we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. Whatever we have to be is what we are’.
Intensity can divide us, leave us tired and burnt out. Integrity offers rediscovery and recovery from the many human conditions that afflict body, soul and mind. I’m certain now that John was pointing to the unique Carmelite gifts that can hold us in a true ‘spirit of integrity’ when we chatted at Minsteracres on that occasion three and a half years back.