Nothing is accidental. My entire life, even in the most minute details, was pre-designed in the plans of divine providence and is, for the all-seeing eye of God, a perfect coherence of meaning.
The Delgany Carmelites are a community of eight sisters, living within a monastic structure whose origins lie in the thirteenth century, yet they want to revive the world. Their existence is relatively unknown and unseen, yet they want to influence thought and understanding. Personal material possessions do not matter to them, yet they want full and satisfied hearts. They have no part in organised political or cultural debate, but they can help shape ideologies. Their monastic lives are ordinary and extraordinary, they are confident and hesitant, faithful and faltering. Their encounters with paradox show them how to make sense of themselves before God.
Each of them has her own particular story, her own life sequence and pattern that led her to this monastery and this Carmelite life of prayer. They have come from different places and diverse contexts, from lengthy and, occasionally, less than straightforward routes. Through their years of staying in this place, in some cases over 60 years of staying, they know that God has been waiting for them all along, urging them towards the awakening of their integrity and compassion, and towards their own centred selves.
At the heart of Carmelite monasticism is an impulse to pray , and an instinct for prayer. As elusive as definitions of prayer are, Carmelites have developed various and compelling ways of explaining what their prayer is, what they believe it does, and how they are changed by it. Their personal beginnings, though, and their early makings as monastics, rest on experiences that awakened their hearts to significant encounters with God; preludes and preparations for the lives they now lead.
As young women, they found themselves attracted to the signs of faith, prayer, inner transformation and spiritual intention that they saw around them. Their lives were fully engaged with work and family, friends and activity, and their close communities were places of comfort and belonging for them. It can sometimes be in the nature of diffused existences, though, that it is difficult to find one’s focus, to establish one’s own ground for self-exploration and one’s route to wisdom and wholeness. And so it was that they, in their own places and their own times, felt keenly the need to know and understand themselves. Now, many years on, they have learned that those urges towards self-knowledge carried some of the seeds of their vocations; St. Augustine also realised that ‘what I know of myself I know through the shining of your light’ and St. Basil stated that discovering oneself equates with knowing God and comes about as work of the hand of God. In Ephesians, too, the strengthening of ‘the hidden self’ is the pre-requisite for the presence of God in our hearts. Coming to know herself and, as a result, coming to know God, seems to them to mark the beginning of their lives of dedicated contemplation ; literally, the creation around oneself of a space or temple for careful thought and attention, and prayer for the needs of the world.
Their early contemplative spaces became contexts in which they began to apprehend patterns in their thinking and behaviour, and they were places open and oriented to God. In time, the cultivation of a contemplative dimension became necessary to each of them; drawn by heart and spirit to God’s presence, and by the mind, towards understanding of the movements within them. The seventeenth century attempt to define prayer, by George Herbert, ends with the aphorism that it is ‘the land of spices; something understood’. They share this view of a relationship with God as a total response, grounded in sense, feeling and understanding. It was the deepening desire for a total response to God, to their own humanity and to the world, beyond the typical occupations of daily life, that nurtured the idea of a monastic vocation in each of them.
Few of us, whether within or outside a monastery, have lives which are untouched by loss, grief and disappointment in their natural proportions. For young adults considering the possibility of religious commitment, there is perhaps a pressing need to tease out the place and meaning of such sadnesses in the Christian life; to see where brokenness fits with a context where one had imagined wholeness.
The Sisters’ explorations of Carmelite prayer showed them an integrated vision of suffering and wholeness, and the lives of the Carmelite saints demonstrate that experiences of darkness can lead to the transcendence of darkness. They began to read St. Thérèse, St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, and they found there a humanity resonant with their own; an encouragement, above all, to attentiveness and to love. Along with the scriptures, their Carmelite guides were helping to straighten their paths, to lead them to the soul of their monasticism; the place where their fragmentation and wholeness meet with compassion and celebration, where their contemplative practice answers some of the world’s most difficult questions.
The Delgany Carmelites characterise their monasticism as an act of deep listening; to God, to one another and to the needs of the world around them. Listening has brought them here, and sustains them here; it is the creative ground on which they discover the abundance of one another’s heart and experience. Listening – the authentic meaning of ‘obedience’ – is a remarkable act, a dramatic commitment that each of them has made to this community; their human agency, their active participation in the act of transformation gives them divine responsibilities to attend to one another. As Carmelites, they have learned to attach particular significance to focused and concentrated listening, inspired by Elijah, their founding prophet, and his encounter with God as a ‘still, small voice’. Elijah’s experience of listening, of the need to listen carefully , urges them to be vulnerable, susceptible and attuned to the voices around them.
Their life of prayer is an orientation of hearts and minds to God and,as they prioritise the practice of prayer, they can feel themselves to be awakened, animated and motivated, alert to its possibilities for their gradual transformation. Each of them remains in touch with and moved by the grace and gift of their monastic profession, challenged and stimulated by the demands of their Carmelite way of being. They have also sometimes felt themselves to be otherwise, affected by a sense of lassitude or impatience, when their transformation has seemed a little too gradual for them. These are times when they can feel they are doing no more than turning up for prayer, no more than allowing themselves to observe the routine of monastic life. But, because these are also times for cultivation, maturation, and the garnering of their spiritual resources, the occasions of apparent ordinariness become opportunities for renewed commitment and revitalisation. They are calls, to give attention to their faith and to the inward and outward expression of their faithfulness. They are times for them to re-find their centre. The faith, just as T.S. Eliot says, ‘is in the waiting’.
Their Carmelite monasticism, their growth and transformation as individuals and as a community, their praying and their contemplation, are signs of the power of God’s love. Monastic lives have much to say to the world. Their listening and their totality are at the heart of attainable conversion:
“For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky that you should say, ‘Who will go to the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’ No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts.
You only have to carry it out .”
(Deuteronomy, 30, 11-14)