Thursday, August 25, 2016

Carmelite on a Journey

Ok, yes, I know I said I was going to write about matters in chronological order, but I'm jumping out of that track for the moment. My Secular Carmelite meeting is approaching this weekend, and before I talk with them I want to work through my experience from that specific perspective.

The pilgrimage spanned two major Carmelite feast days (Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Elijah), and I visited the ancient Carmelite church in Krakow as well as the St. Joseph friary and church in St. John Paul's home town, Wadowice. And, as is somewhat to be expected, I found images of St. Therese everywhere, including at the replicated office of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Niepokalanów.

But the apex of the entire pilgrimage for me was the feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein. It was August 9, our last full day in Poland. We were in Wroclaw, which was the saint's hometown, known to her by the German name of Breslau. My body, my soul, my emotions, my spirit -- everything I had -- had been through an extensive work out by that point, and I was feeling peeled to the core. But what I encountered was astounding.

The day began with Mass at St. Michael the Archangel church, which was Edith's parish where she attended Mass during her Catholic years in her hometown, and in which is a chapel dedicated to her honor. It is noteworthy that it was a feast day, because she is a patroness of Europe. Even for Carmelites in the United States, the day is only celebrated as a memorial, and in a non-Carmelite parish her feast is generally not observed at all. So this was an exceptional thing for me already. I should also mention that I chose my Carmelite name, Elijah Benedicta of the Incarnate Word, in part in honor of her and because of the impact she has already had on my life, part of which I'm about to mention.

The Mass was entirely in Polish, but by that time, I had adjusted to distilling the essence of the movement of the offering of Mass and some theme to wrap my heart around from the readings, despite not being able to pray with language. (Again, my training from Japan bore fruit.)

Two things were riveting my attention. The first was interior, and it wasn't so much something that went through my mind as a general sense that welled up in me powerfully from my own memory. It was an experience in prayer that I had had in 2013 on the same feast day. In fact, I wrote about it here in a blog post entitled "Pondering God's Dark Speech." The part that was resonating so strongly within me was a quote from St. Augustine from the Office of Readings: "You are seated at a great table. Observe carefully all that is set before you, for you also must prepare such a banquet."

The second thing riveting my attention was a painting of the saint at the front of the church. It was

simply the most beautiful image of her I have ever seen. Beauty is not exactly an attribute that comes to mind when I think of Edith Stein. Most photos of her capture an almost frightening seriousness. After the Mass concluded I knelt before the picture and found myself immersed, enveloped in a powerful awareness that the beauty that I found in the painting was actually the beauty of God's love in her soul. The afternoon before I had stood in Auschwitz-Birkenau. On August 1, 1942, Edith and many other Hebrew Catholics residing in Holland were rounded up and sent by cattle car to die there. Reports of eye witnesses and messages she was able to send out testify to the fact that during this final novena of her life, until her execution on August 9, she prayed with calm, rock-like faith, and attended lovingly to her fellow captives. She had intuited and accepted some time before that she would one day offer her life in expiation for the inhuman destruction perpetrated by her own nation against her own people.

It simply is not within any human capacity I know anything about to love in the face of sheer evil hatred and destruction. But God does it. And He does it through those transformed into Him by grace. That is sanctity.

I knelt and was overwhelmed for a good long time. One simple thing God had impressed upon me earlier in the pilgrimage is that He calls me to love everyone with His heart. I was not exactly thinking about that at this moment, for I was not exactly thinking at all. I was just overwhelmed at the beauty that I saw in the soul of a real human being, a saint.

After Mass, our group walked to the nearby Edith Stein house, her home for 23 years.

As the man who was working there presented the basic information about Edith's life and details about her Jewish family, her home, and her death, my heart was overwhelmed again as if I were listening to Jesus Himself speaking of the gift of her life He had given to the world. I had to fight the urge to hug him afterwards, but I did speak to him about Edith's great beauty and I thanked him and told him God had indeed spoken through him to me.

The long view of the room which had been Edith's home.
After that visit was complete, the task for everyone was to coordinate their free afternoon. Emotionally, I was stretched further than I imagined remotely possible. I had no interest at all in taking in the sights where others were headed, but simply felt a raw need to connect with one friend. It didn't seem that could happen. Then I realized what I needed to do about that was to go and pray for my friend. Carmelites pray, you know.

I walked the path I had come to know over the month towards the city center. I ate my lunch, and when I was fueled up for some serious prayer, I stepped into the church I had visited several times over the month, Holy Name of Jesus. I was totally unprepared for what I found inside.

Hidden off in a rear side chapel was a string quartet playing the most exquisitely beautiful music I have ever heard. God often has used music to disarm me and speak into the depths of my being, but this was staggering. At first, I simply sat near the entrance to get over the shock. When I was able to recover myself to pray, I moved to the front of the church, the acoustics causing the music to swell perfectly throughout. For at least 90 minutes my prayer and that music wove around each other as both seemed really to flow from God to me. To pray for another person, this weaving taught me, is to participate in the incredible, overflowing, immense, and so-very-close flood of the love of God which is so peaceful, so restful, so life-giving, so creature-honoring, so personal, so intimate. To be an intercessor for another is to be emptied in order to enter this fullness and then to bring everyone who is in my heart to this fullness, plunging into this mercy.

For almost a week before this, I had been prone to bursts of tears, because that is what a pilgrimage does to you. It breaks you to the core and makes you raw. It brings you to a kind of death, and I was there. No doubt. But this experience left me radiant with joy. It isn't that the things that make you raw go away. It is that God who is super-abundant shows Himself as bigger than the pain.

I will remember this year's feast of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross for many years to come. It seems clear to me that God is showing me that I am indeed seated at a banquet, and I am to offer a banquet. No one comes to Carmel for herself. We come to Carmel for the Church. We give ourselves to God not as an escape from the world or for our own pleasure or gain, but to please God alone, to love Him alone, and to love our neighbor. Carmel can seem terribly austere, all about detachment, death, and the hard way. But really, Carmel is about love. That love is worth every austerity, detachment from everything, and death to self. Love is all. In Love, we have all.

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