Contemplation - the heart of the Carmelite charism - 1. Contemplation – the transforming process of accepting the boundless love of God
In line with our Rule and Constitutions the new RIVC develops contemplation as the heart of our Carmelite charism, as the dynamic core of our specific mission, which unifies and shapes the other essential elements of our way of life: prayer, fraternity and service.
The understanding of contemplation which we gained within our Order over the last years is much wider than just thinking in terms of living like cloistered nuns, spending as much time as possible in one’s own cell or, even worse, fostering the old dichotomy between “action” and “contemplation” by playing activities and apostolates off against a life dedicated to prayer. Instead we came to comprehend contemplation as an attitude and a life-style, as an inner journey and a process of transformation, which affects all dimensions of our life without any exceptions: our prayer as well as our activity, our solitude as well as our relationships, what we do as well as what we are.
Contemplation therefore is the most essential and basic value of our vocation because it means nothing less than entrusting ourselves in any situation of our life to the unlimited love of the true God without clinging to any other means of security so that He may heal our wounds, purify our motivations, transform our feelings and our thinking according to the principles of his kingdom, which are so different from what we normally were taught to believe. Contemplation as the most fundamental attitude to trust always and everywhere in the love of Jesus Christ’s Abba will gradually unmask, identify and heal our false gods and along with them our false self formed by all the painful experiences of our biography as consequences of humankind’s original sin. Eventually our true self, the innermost chamber of our inner castle, the unscathed centre of our being, where the only one true God dwells (cf. Teresa of Jesus), can grow stronger and stronger.
To enter this process of a healing transformation and to persevere in it means to become more and more ready and able to recognise and to live in the presence of the kingdom of God, which is the reality of an all-powerful and ubiquitous love that Jesus made visible to those who have eyes to see (cf. Mc 8:17, Lk 10:23). To remind of and to bring forward this fundamental meta-noia, this existential change of mind and heart as the main challenge of Christianity, is, so I strongly believe, the centre of our charism as Carmelites - nothing less. If we are called above all to contemplation then we are not just called to keep alive this or that aspect of our Christian faith but it’s very centre, or to say it with the words of Thérèse of Lisieux: we are called to be the love in the heart of the church! (Ms B) All the spiritual and mystical tradition of our Order emphasises this in one way or another. If contemplation is our primary mission then it is not so important how “much” we pray or what we specifically “do” but what we “are”, that we become more and more our true self. This transformation happens when we unceasingly and untiringly renew our decision to open ourselves to the reality of God - that is to the reality of love - in any situation of our life, in our prayer as well as in our activities, in our joy as well as in our pain, in our strength as well as in our weakness, in our trust as well as in our doubts, in our confidence as well as in our anxiety, in our good deeds as well as in our sins.
Our first call as contemplatives therefore is to learn to see and to accept our true self, that we are God’s beloved children not because we are so virtuous and holy by ourselves but only because God himself has freely and irrevocably chosen us to be his beloved sons and daughters. We cannot deserve his love, but only receive it and accept it, just like we receive the life he has given us. I am very much convinced that to live out this sole and lasting meaning of our life is our main task and the most needed service we can give to ourselves, to the Church and to all people, no matter which culture or subculture they belong to. By authentically witnessing to the reality of an unconditionally loving God we give the only satisfying answer to the deepest longings of all human persons, who in various ways are caught up in the destructive power of idolatry, compensating their fundamental need for a loving acceptance by adoring the false and enslaving gods of consumption, luxury, money, efficiency, power, perfection, symbiotic relationships, esoteric or religious flights from reality and innumerable others. All of these gods somehow promise happiness but after a fleeting experience of satisfaction they only extend our false self by increasing its feelings of inferiority, self-alienation, inner division and restlessness. To break this vicious circle each one of us has to begin by becoming himself a true contemplative, deeply rooted in the love of God so that our true self can be nourished and unfolded.
At the same time we have to strive for creating conditions within our provinces and communities and above all in our formation houses, which encourage us to grow in a contemplative attitude and to make this transformation process the centre of our lives. Indispensable for that is sufficient time for prayer and meditation, spiritual direction, regular directed retreats, appropriate psychological and spiritual formation, individual and common reflection on our individual and community life-style - only to mention the most important elements which help and enable us to become true contemplatives.
But before considering the consequences, I think it is necessary to describe the meaning of contemplation as a transformation process more comprehensively. For only by gaining a deep understanding of our contemplative vocation will we be ready and able to really let contemplation become the all determining source of our Carmelite life.
*Scripture references are from the New International Version (NIV) Study Bible.