“Yours in Christ, Yours in Carmel.” It was how Fr. Greg closed all his emails to me. It still is. In most cases, I am sure he never gave it a second thought, but no matter how many times I saw it in the first months of our correspondence, it always made me pause. I understood his first phrase, “Yours in Christ”. All of us are joined in one sacred body, in the mystical body, the corpus mysticum, of Christ. Fr. Greg is mine just as I am his because the love of Christ that saved us both gave us to each other. If we accept it, that same love can also give us to Christ just as Christ gave himself to us so that, as Jesus intended, “We are all one as He and the Father are one”.
But what about the second phrase, “Yours in Carmel”? It just wasn’t as clear cut. At one point I protested to Fr. Greg that I wasn’t “in Carmel” yet, that I was still parked at a scenic viewing area at the foot of the mountain. In the biographies of Carmelite saints I had read it was often said that one “entered Carmel”. Usually, the phrase referred to the date that they first professed or, in the case of a nun like St. Therese, the date that they were enclosed in a convent. That being the case, I reasoned, how could Fr. Greg write, “Yours in Carmel”? He was in; I was out. It was one of those subtle teaching moments Carmelites seem to wrap around their interactions, and it got me wondering what I was missing. Fr. Greg seemed comfortable enough to write it, why was I having such a hard time receiving it?I started to think about what Carmel actually was. Obviously, it is an actual location in modern-day Israel: 32°43’43.00″ N, 35°02’48.00″ E, elevation: 1,725ft. It is the mountain on which the Prophet Elijah lived out most of his exploits, and for this reason it is same mountain on which the first Carmelites gathered as hermits. Like all archetypes, it is both a place of origin and at the same time a destination. Having a positive and negative aspect as part of its nature, Carmel is both a garden (Carmel in Hebrew means, “garden”) and yet it is also a desert. It is a metaphor for conversion: the arduous climb up and out of our pride, concupiscence and sin toward the summit of a humble, pure, and obedient heart. It is a metaphor for self knowledge and psychological growth: the journey from the dissolution and arid wasteland of an ego-based personality pursuing its own desires toward an open heart that sees the idols it creates and surrenders them to make room for God at the center of one’s thoughts, feelings, behavior, aspirations. It is also a metaphor for the contemplative life: the journey through the recurring deserts and dark nights of our lives, when God appears to be absent, and we must walk on toward the summit of the mountain in faith, sometimes blindly, until we discover to our surprise that it was not God who was absent from us but rather we who had turned away from Him in our hearts and failed to see His grace all around us. After a long time, I began to see that we “enter Carmel” when we say yes to any or all of these metaphors in our lives, according to our state in life. For some this may be the physical entering of a cloister or hermitage to begin a hidden life in Christ, for others it may be a series of vows and a life spent in prayer, community and service, for still others it may be a personal dedication to pursue God in the depths of their lives and hearts, living as a contemplative amidst career and family obligations. No matter what the external circumstances of our lives, Carmel is entered when we make a decision to pursue God and endeavor to stand in His presence no matter where we are. In this light, I felt like I could finally “catch up” to Fr. Greg’s phrase “Yours in Christ, Yours in Carmel” and receive it as an acknowledgement of one traveler on the spiritual road to another, a greeting among family members who are not only joined by a shared Lord but also by a shared dedication to make that Lord not only the beginning but also the destination of their lives, such that we can say with T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.