Reflections of a contemplative on lockdown and pandemic.
When the lockdown began earlier this year it was twelve years since I had left the Carmelite cloister after having been a contemplative nun for thirty-five years. Inevitably I have put side by side the Carmelite life I knew so well and the novel experience of lockdown and pandemic.
Comparisons between some of the elements of contemplative life and lockdown have been made fairly widely: the slowing down of life, time for meditation, thought, interiority, prayer; more solitude, less distraction, no travel; greater simplicity of life. I would like to explore in the context of this pandemic something else which I believe the Carmelite life and tradition may offer, beginning with a background word about Carmelite spirituality.
The Carmelite life essentially involves a profound interiority. Solitude and silence are integral to it, as are asceticism and a major level of withdrawal from the ordinary social and cultural norms of secular society. The Liturgy of the Hours prayed together, the Sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharistic Sacrifice, are components of a seamlessly integrated whole, in a community life which witnesses to the interior life the community of the Church. These are all elements of a choice by which the Carmelite ventures, adventures, to learn of life and the source of life, of self and, first and last to know and to love God. Yet this interiority and ascent of Mt Carmel are also essentially outward looking: the journey into the life of God is entirely fused with God’s outward journey of His gift of Himself for the world. Carmel is a way of being, in prayer and for the world and the Church.
The Discalced Carmelite vocation involves a very deliberate choice to ascend the mountain of Carmel. It is a going out in joy to gaze on the Beloved:
Let us rejoice, Beloved,
and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty,
to the mountain and to the hill,
to where the pure water flows,
and further, deep into the thicket.
For St John of the Cross, however, the “thicket” is the Cross, and in our quest for God we go ‘further, deep into the thicket’. To go forth rejoicing with the Beloved, to behold the beauty of God, to seek the source of life, to adventure as deeply and widely as humanly possible – and then still further – into the experience of life, is to encounter death and new life, the Cross and the Resurrection, the entire mystery of Redemption. The ascent of Mt Carmel, the journey into the thicket, is a laying down of one’s life to receive it again. This “laying down” of our lives may begin as our choice to “lay down”, accepted through freely chosen conversion and the reordering of our lives. These open the heart to the grace of God and prepare one for ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’: the laying down of life in the cloister is not an artificial, affected or esoteric construction. On the contrary, it is an integral part of the global experience of life which includes involuntary suffering coming to us in the innumerable ways. We may begin to lose sight of understanding, meaning, control, comfort, and together this amounts to an excoriation in which we stand alone while the raw heart is probed deeply in an encounter in darkness which separates the joint from the marrow. We are searched and known by God, tested and purified as all that we have known as constitutive of our lives is taken from us.
We also begin to experience the new life.
The pandemic and its effects were thrust on us from outside ourselves, yet many of the elements of the pandemic and the lockdown find echoes in the contemplative reality. It is a dramatic, radical and relatively long-lasting reality within which, while we can make some choices, we are obliged to undergo other elements for which our only choices are in our response. While it has been found by some to be an opportunity to take up meditation, quietness, simplicity, to reflect on their lives, priorities and choices, Carmel may also help to live with other darker elements of the ongoing reality.
The pandemic for many has introduced, reintroduced or strengthened, elements of great pain and suffering: loneliness, the loss of the normal patterns of life, fear for loved ones, family and friends, bereavement, financial concerns, loss of employment, family tensions, diffuse fear of what is happening and what may yet happen. Additionally, while we are locked at home, we have seen images of numerous disaster zones around the world, to say nothing of political incompetence and corruption so widely displayed. We become increasingly aware of the long-lasting effects on education, social life, economy, employment. It is not pretty, any of this – even as Calvary is not pretty.
Carmelite spirituality has something to offer here. The contemplative life of Carmel, as already intimated, leads by faith and hope through the Cross, through the death and resurrection of Christ. On the ascent of Mt Carmel there are stretches of the journey in which, in sheer impotence, one is forced to look with the eyes of your heart and mind – eyes often wide open in fear, pain, anger – at the incomprehensible, the brutal, the ugly, experiencing powerlessness and absurdity, unable to impose meaning or order onto any of it. Facing into this chaos from the perspective of the Incarnation of Jesus we discern in hope that this is the chaos into which Redemption springs, the reality into which God’s healing, re-creating love implants a new life. In the pandemic, in the time of both of choice and of impotence, our first choice can be to turn to the love of God supremely effective in the Cross. Here we have the sure hope of the redemption and the gift of new life: the ‘death’ of Christian life, which we experience in all the diminishment, pain and fear of the pandemic, through hope can become a ‘laying down’ of life – as distinguished from an ‘execution’ violently inflicted by circumstances beyond our control.
At this moment we think that the Mass, – the presence of God in His Word, in the community, in the sacrifice of Christ and the nourishment and comfort of the Eucharistic Banquet – should be our strength. Yet the physical, geographical attendance at the Mass was denied in the lockdown, as was all possibility of reception of the Eucharist or even quiet visits to the church building. (This is of course the perennial reality of Catholics in some parts of the world.) Loss of the local church community not only accompanies this, but is an essential part of the experience: attendance at Mass is precisely listening together to the Word, sharing of the one bread and the one cup in which the shared participation is constitutive of who we are both as Church and even as individuals. What is at issue here, however, is not the availability of Mass and prayer, but access to the love, the support and the gifts of God, which as Catholics we are accustomed to receive above all in Mass, which is the source and summit of the life of the Church, the gift of Christ’s redeeming love in the world. This is not about of whether or not we are able to make the choice to follow a streamed Mass, nor whether we find it helpful or worthwhile to do so. Rather this involves our access to the centrality of God’s love, to the Redemptive action of God in His Word, to the sacrifice of Christ in our lives, individually and as a community, a parish. It is about the possibility of the reception of this foundational gift of God.
All this was outside our control and we have a choice only in our response – but we do have that one choice.
Our perspective necessarily shifts from attendance at the Liturgy to the ever- and everywhere- present reality of the Redeeming Christ, to an existential participation in all that the Mass is. It is about the grace sought from within our own need, the anguish of our lives and of the life of the world; the turning to God who is always giving Himself in the redemptive sacrifice of Christ; it concerns our commitment to participate in the mystery of the sacrificial death of Christ, Beloved and Loving, for our survival, for own lives and the life of the world. This is our exercise of the priesthood of the laity. As we experience our raw need, we are called to seek God from the intimate places and spaces of our lives, from the darkest personal and societal experiences of the pandemic, trusting and yearning that because of His Redemptive love He will to be found as we search Him down the nights and down the days, until finally we experience being found by Him as He restores to us that which we had thought lost.
The various components of the Mass – the penitential service, the liturgy of the Word, the altar of sacrifice and table of the Lord – focus on the bread and wine which become the body and blood of Christ, both sacrificed for us and our food and banquet. Participation in the Sacrifice of Christ is consummated in union with God in Christ in communion with each other in the reception of the Blessed Sacrament. In Christ God supports and nourishes us as individuals who, sharing the one bread and one cup, grow into the of the Body of Christ which is the Church. The reception of Holy Communion is food for the journey of life to fulfilment in God, a food which is Christ Himself, the reception of new life, a life which is God’s own. It is food for the journey, for our nourishment, and life for living. The consecrated elements are simply unavailable to us in lockdown yet our need for food and our path through life is greater than ever. However, as our awareness of our need increases, there is no decrease in God’s commitment to give freely His redeeming love. The central reality is God’s gift in Christ of His redeeming love. While routinely we know this in His flesh and blood given to us in the Last Supper, given on the Cross, the source of life in the Resurrection, the circumstances which our beyond our human control to not circumscribe God’s gift in Christ or His ability to dispense His gift.
Carmel can teach us of the encounter with God in the interior journey undertaken with our pain and fear unshielded by the “normal” flow of daily life, and with no pretence, no airs and graces of our own as protection. We can go ‘further, deep into the thicket’ and we will be shown there the divine love and the gift of redemption which we so desperately need.
 Spiritual Canticle 36
 Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven
©Mary Stevens June 2020