One of my favorite quotations of Saint Teresa of Jesus (Saint Teresa of Avila) is from “Book of Her Life” (her autobiography). Teresa says: “The path of self-understanding must never be abandoned, for it is the bread upon which the soul is fed.”
For the longest time, I pondered what that all means. Why is self-understanding and not something else food for the soul? And how can self-understanding feed the soul? What is Saint Teresa trying to say? The answer came two weeks ago during the funeral of one of our Carmelite seminarians.
First some background. Brother David entered the Carmelite formation program in 2006. What he had going for him was that he was young, smart, hard-working, and tech-savvy. What he had going against him was that he was highly competitive, strong in his opinions, and always right. He got a reputation of not being that nice of a guy. The other guys in formation kept their distance. But because of his strengths, though, he kept advancing through the program — postulancy, novitiate, vows, theology, and internship. And it was during internship that he received some really bad news.
For his internship (a two-year period during formation when the guy works full-time in a Carmelite ministry to get a feel for the life away from the formation houses) Brother David was assigned to teach computer science in one of our high schools. He would get back to the priory after each day in the classroom exhausted and go to sleep till the next morning. Finally he went to see a doctor because he knew something was not right. The test results came back: colon cancer, stage IV. Verdict: incurable.
He began treatment right away. And he pushed back hard against the cancer, keeping a full-schedule in the classroom. When his internship period ended, he then returned to theology studies. And he did not let the cancer slow him down there either. It was here that the guys noticed a new Brother David. He developed a sense of humor. He was a lot more patient and a lot less judgmental. Instead of always competing with the guys, he began helping them with their studies instead. And he got a reputation for being a good listener. Instead of keeping their distance, Brother David now was the center of the community — not out of pity, but because of his kindness, helpfulness and compassion. It was easy, despite the cancer, for the community to call him to Final Vows.
We all feed our souls with non-nourishing bread. We dump a lot of energy into status, or getting ahead, or putting others down in order to feel superior, or getting the last word, or controlling others, or self-medicating our hurts with addictions, or simply being nasty to keep people at a distance because we’ve been hurt before and we won’t be hurt again. Then we dump a lot of energy into denying it! And if we can’t deny it, then we dump a lot of energy into justifying it!
In the closing chapter of his new book entitled “Prayer: Our Deepest Longing,” Father Ronald Rolheiser writes, “You do not feel gentleness when inside of you and all around you there is noise, abrasiveness, anger, bitterness, jealousy, competitiveness and paranoia. The sound of God’s heartbeat is audible only in a certain solitude and in the gentleness it brings. Through solitude we empty our hearts of all that is not mild: noise, anger, bitterness and jealousy. When we become mild, we will remember that we have been touched by loving hands and we then will have our ear to the heartbeat of Christ.”
The diagnosis of cancer refocused Brother David. And it demanded that he look within and reassess his life, his actions, his choices, his whole life. Brother David became very gentle in his last few years. His final decline came on rather suddenly, but instead of keeping their distance, the community gladly gathered around him and journeyed with him to his last breath. He had found good bread and was well-nourished by it and he shared that bread with the rest of us.