The Way of Perfection

October 15, 2014

Today is the feast day of St. Teresa of Avila, the saint whose name I took at my confirmation. Teresa is a looming figure in Catholic history. A reformer, writer, and mystic, she was one of the first women to be named a Doctor of the Church, an honor which acknowledges the saint’s important theological contribution to the Church. Her writings, which discuss busy-ness, distraction, and dryness in prayer, seem written to a modern audience stuck on their i-Phones and tied to their G-Cals.images-7

Teresa has not only impacted me through her spiritual writing, but through the women who carry her Carmelite charism. I’d like to share a bit about two groups of women—one in Indiana and one in Jordan—who have supported my spiritual life at crucial points in my journey.

The Carmelites of Indianapolis at the Monastery of the Resurrection

As a child, I often attended Mass with my family at the Carmelite monastery in Indianapolis. Each week, a local Jesuit priest (from my future high school, Brebeuf) would say Mass for the dozen or so sisters and a diverse group of Catholic lay people, including those in openly gay partnerships. The service was different than any other Mass I’d been to before, or have attended since. We sung the Gloria with non-gendered language; we passed the Eucharist throughout the rows and consumed it together; and we sat quietly after Communion, meditating as a song played from the CD player in the corner. The radical equality and solidarity preached by Jesus was mirrored in the Mass. I will never forget the soft, high voices of the sisters singing, or the passion with which Sr. Terese proclaimed the readings.

The (former) Carmelite Monastery of the Resurrection in Indianapolis.
The (former) Carmelite Monastery of the Resurrection in Indianapolis.

Carmelites are traditionally a cloistered order which, in the past, never left the monastery. In the early 2000s, these sisters still maintained a simple life of prayer, silence, and community within the monastery, but they often ventured out into the community to see the Harry Potter movies and go to Target. They were funny, relatable, and smart, reading dozens of newspapers and magazines each week to keep abreast on current affairs. This self-education about current events was another way they stayed connected to the world outside their walls. After reading about the Iraq War, the sex abuse scandal, or the Second Intifada, they came together and prayed, lifting up the suffering to God. Eventually, their prayer and reflection moved beyond the monastery in a more concrete way—through PraytheNews.com, a website developed by my dad’s advertising agency. The site featured the sisters’ prayerful commentary on world events, in addition to resources about Carmelite prayer and the history of the order.

Many of the sisters I knew.
Many of the sisters I knew.

These sisters taught me what it means to be socially conscious, and convinced me of the efficacy of prayer even when prayer seems hopeless. Through their encouraging words every week, they helped to nourish my vocation—something I can only recognize now with hindsight. They are still some of my biggest cheerleaders and I continue to correspond with Srs. Terese and Jean Alice now and then.

Because of the sisters’ old age and small numbers, they had to discontinue the PraytheNews website and move from their beautiful, stone monastery to another religious community in eastern Indiana. But their impact is still felt through their prayers, as Sr. Terese’s reflection illustrates:

“Hidden Friends,” God in Ordinary Time

Sister Terese in the monastery courtyard.
Sister Terese in the monastery courtyard.

I like to pray in the morning
When all is quiet.
In the summer, I frequently go outside
And walk the monastery grounds
Or sit in the courtyard.
In the winter, when the mornings are dark,
I prefer to sit in my very small room.
The windows are high, so that only sky
and the tops of trees
can be seen.
Periodically, the twinkling red and white
Lights of a plane far up
In the Heavens
Punctuate the blackness.
I try to picture the passengers traveling
To their destinations,
and I wrap them in prayer.
“Where did they begin their journeys?
What loved ones wished them well?
Whom will they meet when they land?
What calls them to be traveling at this hour?”
I hope them all
In my heart and pray
For their safety and their happiness,
Though they do not know
This unknown friend
Sitting in a monastic cell.
Sometimes, I wonder if one of them is looking
Down on the miniature trees and houses, seeing
The lights of the city,
Sending down silent blessings
Upon me—an unknown friend
Cradling me in prayer.
We could be sending arcs of blessing
Like rainbows through the skies.

Elisa and Amabel: Teresians in Amman

Elisa and I in 2012.
Elisa and I in 2012.

I met Elisa Estrada and Amabel Sibug in 2012, when I first lived in Jordan during college. They helped out with the Mass I attended—Elisa orchestrated the readers and Eucharistic ministers, while Amabel played guitar for the music ministry. During that time, they were friendly, kind faces, but I didn’t get to know them well until I returned to Jordan in the fall of 2013.

I was quite emotional on my first Sunday back in Amman, unsure if I could manage for nine months away from family and friends. When I walked into Mass, Elisa immediately recognized me, gave me a hug, and asked me, “Would you like to read?” She, like the Carmelites, also knew how to tend my vocation—I enjoy participating in the Mass by reading the Scripture passages. I sat in the pew, trying to pray before Mass began, but was still overwhelmed by the transition to my new home. Elisa noticed I was upset, and scooted next to me on the pew. “It is so nice to have you back,” she said. “We’re glad you’re here.” Her hospitality and welcome caused me to cry a new wave of tears, one of gratitude and relief. This interaction was a sign of the friendship that would emerge over the next year.

Elisa and Amabel both work at the Pontifical Mission Library, an institution of the Catholic Church which serves the whole community, Christian and Muslim. Children and adults alike come to check out books in Arabic and English, and to participate in religious events or skills workshops. I made use of the library as well, coming on free mornings to work on my research.

Elisa (L), Amabel, and I in May 2014.
Elisa (L), Amabel, and I in May 2014.

Originally from the Philippines, Elisa and Amabel have spent decades in Jordan. Elisa has been with the library since she helped open it in Jabal Hussein 40 years ago. They are members of the Teresians, a community of lay men and women who live out the spirituality of St. Teresa and the Carmelites. Their members are spread around the world, and most work in educational ministries. As single women, Elisa and Amabel live together in an apartment with a chapel, and every Friday, they welcome foreign workers—many of them Filipino—into their home for a meal. Elisa and Amabel serve and live among struggling but ordinary communities: Palestinian refugees, domestic workers, the elderly and the sick. They live out the Gospel injunction to “love thy neighbor” with sincerity and humility, attempting to walk with Jesus throughout their day. During my visits to the library, Elisa and I would often talk about her prayer life, how she was relating to Jesus and what He was teaching her. Usually, the message was trust—a message I constantly needed to hear. I now wish I had written down those conversations.

Elisa under the Elijah tree atop Tell Mar Eliyas.
Elisa under the Elijah tree atop Tell Mar Eliyas.

One afternoon last October, Elisa and Amabel took me with them on a mini-pilgrimage to two holy sites in northern Jordan. One of them was Tell Mar Eliyas, or the Mount of St. Elijah. Legend holds that Elijah was born in a town in northern Jordan, and that as a child he would climb a nearby mountain to pray. The Byzantines built a large church on this mountain, and its intricate mosaic floor is partially in tact today. At one end of the ruins is an old tree, with many ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to it. Muslim pilgrims also come to the site with particular petitions and pray to Elijah to intercede for them.

Some of the intricate mosaics, which are still intact, despite the site's lack of roof.
Some of the intricate mosaics, which are still intact, despite the site’s lack of roof.

Elisa, Amabel, their friend, Petra, and I explored the site and sat in silent prayer alone. The Carmelites’ style of prayer is characterized by silence, and they trace this emphasis back to Elijah, who was unable find God in the storm, the wind, or the fire, but in calm silence. It was grateful to pray at the place where Elijah prayed as a child, where Carmelite spirituality got its start.

Teresa’s women

I am so grateful to these women of St. Teresa, who have supported me in times of growth and struggle, and who model her challenging “way of perfection,” an avenue to God defined not by the avoidance of sin, but a path defined by self-giving love.

Through their humble service, they live out this saying of St. Teresa, which might as well have been uttered by Jesus Himself: The important thing is not to think much, but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love. 

Overlooking the Holy Land from Tell Mar Eliyas.
Overlooking the Holy Land from Tell Mar Eliyas.

More in Heaven: Wisdom from Julian of Norwich

God wants us to know that this beloved soul was preciously knitted to him in its making, by a knot so subtle and so tight that it is united in God.

This bit of wisdom comes from Julian of Norwich, a Catholic mystic whose birthday is celebrated today, on November 8. I’d like to share a bit about her life, experiences, and writings in order to expose others to this woman, who has become one of my favorite saints and spiritual guides.

A statue of Julian, holding her famous text, "Revelations of Divine Love"
A statue of Julian, holding her famous text, “Revelations of Divine Love”

Julian actually is not a saint, at least not for Roman Catholics. That’s because so little is known about her life, aside from her writings. We don’t even know her name; she is called ‘Julian’ because she lived in a small structure attached to the St. Julian church in Norwich, England, during the latter part of her life. Born around 1342, she lived through political upheaval on behalf of the poor (and the subsequent repression at the hands of conservative, and often Church-related, forces) and plague that wiped out large portions of the population. She likely lived an ordinary life—as a married woman, beguine (itinerant religious sister), or cloistered nun—before she moved to the secluded life of an anchoress, which involved a life dedicated to prayer and the sacraments. Scholars today suggest that she may have moved there in order to write about her mystical experiences without risking backlash from church authorities.

At the age of thirty, Julian became deathly ill, and upon her deathbed received sixteen revelations or “showings,” as she called them, of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. She recovered fully and lived for many more years, during which time she wrote two texts describing and expounding upon the meanings of her revelations. She wrote the “short text” shortly after the revelations, and the “long text” at least thirty years later. The difference in length indicates that in the intervening years Julian had uncovered considerable additional meaning from the visions. Her writing indicates that she was a very learned woman, and had a strong understanding of Catholic theology and how her own visions reflected (or conflicted with) orthodox belief. Julian became known as a spiritual authority in England, and we do know that people visited her seeking advice.

Julian’s combined texts, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known book written by a woman in the English language (Middle English). But it only became well known within the last century, when it was translated to modern English. Some have called Julian a “woman of our day” because of the incredible way her writing and understanding of God can speak to the modern reader today.

Catholics celebrate her “feast day” on May 13, when her showings ended and she returned to health.

Instead of trying to summarize the massive amount of Julian’s spiritual wisdom, I’d like to share a few themes and reflections, with the hopes that readers will feel compelled to pick up Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love, which is not a difficult read.

Closeness to God

As illustrated in the quote above, Julian understood God as incredibly close to her, as inseparable. All mystics, no matter their religious tradition, somehow achieve union with God in this life.

“He is our clothing who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us.”

“My dear darling,” Julian hears Jesus say, “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving…”

She understood God’s incarnation in Jesus to be a validation of humanity, an indication of his desire to be in union with us. It was not a rejection of human weakness or sin, but a desire to be a part of it—to suffer with us—and raise us out of it. Many of her showings were of Jesus’ brutalized body on the cross.

Often mystics feel the need to reject completely the mortal, physical world. But, in good Christian fashion, Julian claims that our mortal bodies are not a stumbling block for our communion with God, but actually the means through which God reaches us—through the divine-human being, Jesus!

God as Mother

Julian also speaks of Jesus as “Mother.” This might seem shocking, given that we as Christians tend to talk about two-thirds of the Godhead (the Father and the Son) in masculine terms. Julian is not alone in using feminine language to describe God, but regardless it is striking for any reader. She understands God’s mercy and active participation in our lives—particularly creating, “birthing,” and taking on human form—as a motherly quality.

It’s also important to note, as I have in other writing, that the word for mercy in Hebrew comes from the word, “womb.” It is unclear if Julian would have been aware of this linguistic connection, but it is interesting to note that in all three monotheistic religions, mercy is perceived as something inherently motherly and physical. As an imam I know once said, mercy is about “feeling for another person deep in your gut, in your bowels.”

God’s will

Religious people often talk about “God’s will.” It’s a tough thing to understand, and something I’ve thought about a lot. How do I know I’m following God’s will for me? What is ‘God’s will’?

Julian answers the question quite simply. The will is not a laid-out set of events that a person must follow in order to please God. Rather:

“It is his will and plan that we hang on to [the Blessed friend, Jesus], and hold tight always, in whatever circumstances; for whether we are filthy or clean is all the same to his love. He wants us never to run away from him, whether things are going well or ill.”

Following God’s will simply means clinging to Jesus, trusting him and following him wherever he takes us. Some wisdom from a Carmelite nun and friend of mine, Jean Alice, helps, I think, to expound upon what Julian means:

“I think the concept of God’s will becomes a stumbling block in people’s lives. They get the image of a person, who has a will, and ‘this is what I want you to do, and if you don’t do it you’re going to suffer and suffer and suffer.’ Whereas if you see God’s will as simply Love that follows us…we maybe make a bad choice here but that Love comes right at us with other choices.”

Following God’s will simply means following Love, following Jesus There is not one “plan” but an infinite number of opportunities to choose love, no matter what decisions we’ve made in the past. Conforming to the plan of God means choosing love in every circumstance.

For me, this conception of God’s will in very comforting, and it allows me to be more at ease with the uncertainty of the future. There’s not the worry of messing up or missing out on God’s plan, because I can conform to it everyday, in big and small ways, by discerning where Love is and how to respond to it. 

Sin as “blindness”

Julian’s insistence on God’s all-encompassing mercy is especially evident in her conception of sin. I wrote a paper about this for my college course on “Medieval Women Mystics,” and I’ll attempt to summarize the ideas here.

In one of Julian's visions she saw a hazelnut and heard God telling her how much he cares for her. Images of Julian often depict her holding a hazelnut.
In one of Julian’s visions she saw a hazelnut and heard God telling her how much he cares for her. Images of Julian often depict her holding a hazelnut.

Julian illustrates a beautiful parable for her readers, in which she re-writes the Fall. Instead of the human person (Adam) deliberately trying to disobey God out of pride, Julian paints an image of a lord and his servant, who runs off joyfully to do the work of his master. He tries his best, but falls into a ditch and thrashes around in the mud, upset by his own failure and so distracted by it that he fails to see that his lord is right beside him, wanting to help him up. The servant’s failure does not induce in the lord a desire to punish him; he can clearly see how much the servant wants to do good. Rather, recognizing that it was simply distractions and missteps that led the servant to turn away, the lord is moved with compassion and brings the servant even closer to himself.

For Julian, sin is about blindness, not seeing God when he is right there:

“Man… falls into sin through naiveté and ignorance. He is weak and foolish in himself, and also his will is overpowered in the time when he is assailed and in sorrow and woe. And the cause is blindness, because he does not see God; for if he saw God continually, he would have no harmful feelings nor any kind of prompting, nor sorrowing which is conducive to sin.”  (emphasis mine)

Thus, for Julian, moving away from sin to union with God is about a shift in perception and awareness, not a shift in being.  We are always with God—or he is always with us; the problem, Julian says, is that we fail to recognize that.

“My sin,” Julian says, “will not impede the operation of his goodness.” Her insistence on God’s all-encompassing mercy was radical for her time, when many of the religious voices around her claimed that the plague was a punishment for people’s sin.

“My dear darling,” Julian hears Jesus say, “I have always been with you, and now you see me loving…”

Encouragement for the journey

Though Julian lived in a time wrought with violence, death, and sickness, she was extremely hopeful, constantly writing about experiencing joy and bliss despite suffering. She is probably best known for her line, “[God revealed to me that] all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” This is the core of Christian truth: that in the end, Love wins. Julian’s reminder can be helpful to all of us, no matter our life circumstances.

Julian also praises the constant search for God, and encourages us to keep praying, keep seeking. Our desire to pray and know God comes from God himself!: “Our Lord God is the foundation of our beseeching.”

Julian’s revelations remind us that union with God will not only occur at the end of time, when we are perfectly unified and meet him “face to face.” They also tell us that we can get a taste of that eventual full communion, right here, and right now.

“God wants us to understand and to believe that we are more truly in heaven than on earth.”