Wisdom of the Carmelite Saints

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Holy Wisdom from Carmelite Saints on the Life of Prayer

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If anyone were to ask me the secret of happiness, I would say it is no longer to think of self.

Prayer is the bond between souls.

You must cross out the word “discouragement” from your dictionary of love.

Christ does not want any sadness in your soul about what was not done for him. He is the savior, his mission is to pardon.

St. Elizabeth of the Trinity (d. 1907)

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Each of you is to stay in your cell or nearby, pondering the Lord’s law day and night and keeping watch at your prayers unless attending to some other duty.

There can be no pleasing God without faith. . . .

St. Albert of Jerusalem (martyred 1214) Rule

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Seek in reading and you will find in meditation; knock in prayer and it will be opened to you in contemplation.

With what procrastination do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart.

For contemplation is nothing else than a secret and peaceful and loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, fires the soul in the spirit of love.

God, like the sun, stands above souls ready to communicate himself.

Let all find compassion in you.

St. John of the Cross (d. 1591)

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Some books on prayer tell us where one must seek God. Within oneself, very clearly, is the best place to look.

I tried as hard as I could to keep Jesus Christ, our God and our Lord, present within me. That was my way of prayer.

You will be immediately told that speaking with [a friend] is unnecessary, that it is enough to have God. But a good means to having God is to speak to his friends.

Believed me, in the presence of Infinite Wisdom, one act of humility is worth more than all the knowledge of the world.

There is no other remedy for this evil of giving up prayer than to begin again.

The Lord doesn’t look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done.

St. Teresa of Avila (d. 1582)

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I felt it was far more valuable to speak to God than to speak about Him.

What is our humiliation at the moment is our glory later on, even in this life.

Your soul is called to raise itself to God by the elevator of love and not to climb the rough stairway of fear.

YES, it suffices to humble oneself to bear with one’s imperfections. That is real sanctity.

Let us see life as it really is . . . a moment between two eternities.

St. Therese of Lisieux (d. 1897)

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John of the Cross did not have an easy childhood.  His family suffered from the rigid system of social classes in sixteenth century Spain. Although his father was a wealthy silk merchant, he married a woman who was a weaver and therefore belonged to a lower social class. His parents disowned him. When he died in 1545, his mother could not support John and his brothers, and she applied to her husband’s parents for support. They refused outright. Although she finally found work in Medina del Campo, John’s youth remained poor. On the bright side, though, he did well at the catechism school where the director chose John to become the acolyte for a monastery of Augustinian nuns. That director also opened the door for John to a Jesuit school which prepared him  to enter the Carmelite Order in 1563 and to receive higher philosophical and theological education at the University of Salamanca. 

1567 was a big year for John. In July he was ordained a priest, then in the fall he had his first meeting with St. Teresa of Avila who enlisted John to help her extend her discalced Carmelite monasteries to the friars. A lifelong friendship which allowed for wonderful collaboration began. All went well with the foundations of nuns and friars until 1577 when the discalced Carmelites fell out of favor with a new papal nuncio. John was a target; he was kidnapped by some friars of the original order of Carmelites and imprisoned in the monastery of Toledo where he lived in cramped dark conditions for nine months. While in this unspeakable prison he composed The Spiritual Canticle in his head and wrote it down from memory when a jailer finally gave him paper and ink! Fortunately for us, he escaped from prison and survived to write and complete  two versions of The Spiritual Canticle (A and B), The Ascent of Mount Carmel, and The Dark Night.  Until his death in 1591,  he also served the Discalced Carmelite Order in many other  ways. Today Carmelites  know him affectionately as “Our Holy Father.”

Like John’s source, The Song of Songs (also known as The Song of Solomon) John uses both natural imagery and bridal imagery in order to explore the soul’s quest for God and progressive transformation in God as the quest goes on. We do not have to take special drugs or leave this world in order to find God. Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, finds us in the midst of our jobs, our human relationships, and all our challenges and adversities. Christ’s whole church, indeed every individual in it, is “the Bride of Christ,” and Christ is our Bridegroom who is always inviting us to share more of his divine life. We sometimes experience his invitation and his presence, but at other times we experience him like the stag, running ahead of us, yet through faith, we know that he is with us and is encouraging us to be faithful and to grow spiritually in our daily lives. John depicts allegorically the whole process of a seeker’s transformation in Christ. 

Below we offer a short selection from  The Spiritual Canticle.  In Stanzas 1-2, the Bride, or the Seeker--don’t get hung up on the gendered imagery; this search is for everyone--knows that she has  experienced Christ but she cannot find this experience now. But this sense of loss  actually reveals that Christ is with us, extending the invitation to go further into the mystery of God’s love. Stanzas 14-15 express the depth of the soul’s love and show that the soul is progressing.  The quotations come from The Spiritual Canticle B, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., ICS Publications, (Washington, D.C.: 1991). We invite you to read the whole poem and pray with the stanzas that most call to you. 

1. Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag
After wounding me;
I went out calling you but you were gone. 

2. Shepherds, you that go
Up through the sheepfolds to the hill,    
If by chance you see
Him I love most,
Tell him that I sicken, suffer, and die.   

14-15
My beloved is the mountains
And lonely wooded valleys, 
Strange islands
And resounding rivers,
The whistling of love-stirring breezes,
The tranquil night
At the time of rising dawn,
Silent music,
Sounding solitude,
The supper that refreshes and deepens love. 

St. John of the Cross (c. 1542-1591)