The instant I saw Arie Trum’s artwork, The Carmelite Rule, I could feel it resonate deep within me, which is not to say that I was comfortable with it at all. In fact, from the moment I first stepped close to the print hanging in the dim light of the hallway in the St. Thomas the Apostle rectory I was challenged by it. Trums’ work is an impressive visual representation of the text of the Rule of St. Albert written out in calligraphy to form a cross surrounding a gold-leaf bordered circular space in the center. Despite the beauty of the lettering, my eye kept falling into the hole in the center of the Rule. Later that night, I lay awake in the dark stillness of my room in the rectory. I told myself it was the jet lag and the new surroundings, but looking back, it was the Hole in the Rule that kept me up. I could still feel it looking after me down the hallway like an unblinking eye. The meticulous lines of its text parted like the Red Sea to allow the space to sit empty and silent in the center: patient, expectant, inscrutable. It conveyed perfectly all that challenged me about Carmelite spirituality; how all of it pointed toward a center, a source, a destination that in the end is best described as nothing, as St. John of the Cross famously intoned in his Ascent of Mount Carmel, “nada, nada, nada, nada, aug el monte nada (nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing and even on the mountain, nothing)”.
If this piece had come across my desk during my graduate school days as an English Literature major, the paper would have written itself. The references in the St. Albert’s Rule to the friars “taking up places in solitary areas” (5), in “separate cells” (6), with each friar instructed to remain in or near his cell, “meditating day and night on the law of the Lord” (10), while diligently and maintaining his silence (21) are all visually reinforced by the silent white space in Trum’s work, the Carmelite’s “cell”, in the center of the text itself. The artwork represents in its visual design exactly what the Rule attempts to create in its spiritual design, namely that the precepts of the Rule create a structure of life that is intended to clear an open space, both physically and psychologically, within which the Carmelite can approach and stand in the presence of God in contemplation. Nice work, Arie Trum, elegant, simple, effective.This “reading” of Trum’s artwork would have sufficed just fine if I had not actually slept down the hall from the Hole in the Rule. The next morning at the retreat I sat in a room at Carith House with Fr. John Welch talking about Carmelite spirituality at one end and another print of Trum’s Rule staring at the back of my head from the other end. Caught between the two of them, my intuition kept telling me to go deeper, which for me always signals that I have to look at myself. Reluctantly, I started to think about why the space compelled me to fill it with something. Why did I have to make the emptiness mean something, represent something? Why was I struggling so hard to put words in its mouth? Was it to reconcile the text and the space and “complete” the work for myself, was it to satisfy my own sense of order and purpose, or was it to affirm my faith that there was a center to the Carmelites after all and that it really didn’t all end in nothing? I started to shift my focus off the Hole in Trum’s Rule and toward the hole in me–the hole I was trying to fill in myself through this print. And that is when the Hole finally stopped staring and started to speak to me.
Carmelite spirituality is about the examined life. The “stuff” of Carmelite spirituality is me. There is no formula to Carmelite spirituality, no image or method of prayer or ritual defines it. It is an intensely personal journey to come to God through my own soul. What I struggle with in myself is what I work with to get up the mountain. So, that Hole in the Rule was doing for me exactly what Carmelite spirituality is intended to do–it challenged me to look at myself, at how I react to the spaces I find in my life. The Hole is a mirror for me to see myself: what I project into the space to fill it, what I look for there, what I want to see, what I need to see and why. Once I can identify all that “stuff” and release it, then the Hole becomes free and open again. It ceases to be a reflective mirror of my ego and becomes a clear window out into a larger presence who transcends all things and so is no-thing, the eternal I AM of which I am a part, if I can get out of the way.