“I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to suffer. I chose my community because it takes a joyful approach to God and the world.” The Vocation Director and I were walking back from our lunch meeting. It was an uncommonly clear January day in Portland, and, although he belonged to another order, I had just told him I was seriously considering the Carmelites and would be visiting them in February. When we stopped at the crosswalk and waited for the light, he continued, “The spirituality of the Carmelites, as far as I can tell, is about constantly looking at yourself, checking your motives and intentions and making sure you are not too much in the world. They are inherently suspicious of the world, rather than curious about it.”
As we walked, his statements deeply disturbed me. I watched his words push out in front of us in the cold air and then slowly dissipate. It felt as if he was speaking with a spiritual accent. I could recognize the words he was using but the way he said them made the Carmelites sound foreign to what I knew and had experienced for myself. I told myself that this is how discernment works—we hear what we are meant to hear, we see what we are meant to see. He was showing me what the Carmelites look like through the lens of his charism. The fact that his perspective looked like a distorted fun-house mirror reflection to me was not his intent, it was just another indication that I was not meant to see through his lens. I had my own.
I came back to the Church not because I wanted a joyful outlook on God and the world but because I was suffering, plain and simple. The first 33 years of my life were spent pursuing what I thought would give me joy and avoiding what I thought would cause me to suffer, and that was precisely what was creating my suffering! I was not suspicious of the world; I was suspicious of myself, of my very ability to know what was right and true, to follow through, to do anything for someone else without resentment or self-pity: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 9:15). My conversion of heart by necessity meant the death of my old self and the birth of my new self. Both the death and the birth are painful and so, for me, spiritual growth means spiritual suffering. Carmelite spirituality gives voice to my experience of myself as I am; it gives me an understanding of how to achieve a strange paradoxical joy: the joy of pursuing spiritual suffering as a means of knowing myself, drawing closer to God, and receiving His healing grace:
“We should not consider our poverty and our limitation as failures, nor simply resign ourselves to them, but rather we should see them as an authentic school of transformation and of contemplation. Moreover it is necessary to recognize our weakness in order to be able to better know who God is and to let ourselves be saved by Him (cfr 2 Cor 12:9)” (Final Message of the 2011 Carmelite General Congregation).This view is the very genius of Carmelite spirituality that was best elucidated in St. Therese of Lisieux’s “little way”. By seeing my suffering and failures as a gift, I have an opportunity to step into God’s mercy and grace, where the pain caused by my faults and even by circumstances beyond my control provide the very basis of my spiritual learning and growth. My weakness becomes my greatest strength because it draws me into a more profound dependence on God. Not out of a self-centered decision to be more holy or joyful or serene, but out of necessity and in humility, because I have no other place to turn and I know am not sufficient to do it alone. All the immense joy that accompanies this suffering and spiritual dependence is certainly a consolation but it is not the goal. The goal of suffering, if I choose to use it as a spiritual school, is to acquire a greater capacity for love and compassion, which in turn makes my suffering just another form of prayer, an offering to God from the abundance of my inequity. Whereas in the past I was caught in a self-defeating cycle driven by the avoidance of pain, now I am engaged in a grace-filled if not always graceful self-transforming cycle that is driven by a pursuit of love through suffering:
“It is love which transforms our works, our thoughts, our feelings (cfr Const. 17, RIVC, 23): that love which comes from God and with which we serve humanity. It is love which purifies our thoughts, heals our wounds, unites us to our brothers and sisters, alleviates our sufferings, denounces injustice and opens ways to reconciliation. Certainly, it is love which changes and transforms our world” (Final Message of the 2011 Carmelite General Congregation).