With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, July 17, 2010


As today was the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, I thought it appropriate to write something about my experience with the Carmelite style of prayer. First off, it's important to understand that the kind of prayer the Carmelites have mastered involves a serious vocation; it is a very narrow path that God calls only particular souls to walk. Climbing Mount Carmel, groping through the dark night, and exploring the interior castle are some of the shortest paths we have in the Church, spiritual shortcuts to perfection; but paths that demand a great deal. These are some of the most beautiful forms that the Holy Spirit takes when He graciously allows the baptized soul to experience Christ's crucifixion in a "hidden way." But my dabbling in Carmelite prayer is decidedly different than the experience of those called in a unique way to take the habit and bear its crosses.

However, in general, I like the Carmelite mystics because they transfigure the boring. The desert, the stillness, the aridity of just sitting in the darkness of a "night"- it is so foreign to my mind. My mind is so restless, so used to pondering and tinkering; moving from this point to that. It is a very "Martha" mind, a Heracletian stream that slips through my fingers when I try to hold it in stillness. It is like struggling with a panicked, drowning man. After reading the mystics, I am ablaze with thoughts of contemplation and the paradoxical joy of its darkness- the ideas and the images that flood the mind inspire me. My mind runs and leaps. But flooding the mind with images is exactly what marks the insufficiency of one's contemplation. It is the opposite of the process of Carmelization. There is a nearly infinite gulf between thinking about such prayer and actually enduring in its stillness. It is boring, to put it frankly. To do it right, you can't do much of anything.

I've gotten better at comprehending this- of "getting it;" its shape is much clearer to me now. Which is paradoxical: getting its shape is like tracing the outlines of a shadow. But it seems important, because I've abandoned contemplative prayer time and time again. I simply wasn't clear on what I was doing (or rather, not doing). Drawing wrong conclusions from what I thought the prayer was supposed to be like left me frustrated again and again. Thinking about the prayer simply did not map onto the experience of it. But now I find myself catching those thoughts and correcting them. Slowly, ever so slowly, I am becoming accustomed to the stillness and the aridity. One can repeat over and over again at the level of theory what the darkness of night is in it's purity; but only when one touches that purity (by touching nothing) will it make any sense (by making rather little sense). The wisdom of the Carmelites is that they recognize and articulate how the aridity and deprivation are "signs" that contemplation is happening. This is a preparation for the supernatural; this is what it looks like when grace, the very love and life of the Triune, crucified God, reconfigures nature from the inside so that it has eyes only for God (while never seeing Him this side of the eschaton).

In the concept, it is absolutely gloriously to consider; in the experience, it is profoundly unexciting. One must simply keep at it, allow oneself to slowly cross that gap between thought about stillness and stillness itself. Which again is paradoxical: "keeping at" it is to active a description. But when one spends enough time in the dark, eventually one's eyes adjust.

Pax Christi,


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