Text by Joseph Chalmers O.carm
In our faith journey, there are moments when we as individuals or as groups are brought into the desert. Sometimes we walk into the desert following God’s call or sometimes we just find ourselves there by force of circumstance. The desert is arid and it can be a frightening place. What does it all mean? We have tried our best to be faithful to Christ’s call to follow him. We have worked in Carmelite parishes or schools for a number of years and for a variety of reasons, the future looks bleak. As priests and religious, we have lost status and we can be tempted not to go any further on the journey because we feel it is just not worth all the trouble. Then God sends a messenger to us. This messenger can come in all shapes and sizes and he or she encourages us to eat and drink for the journey is long. We are encouraged to eat the bread of life and drink from Carmel’s wells, that is the Carmelite tradition, which has given life to many generations before us and is responsible for new life springing up all over the world. But perhaps we are too depressed to even be aware of this, so God’s messenger nudges us again and encourages us to eat and drink. It is a great challenge to recognise what God is saying to us in the midst of daily life and to recognise the voice of God in and through the voice of some very unlikely person.
I do not know whether God causes everything that happens to us but I believe firmly that God is in the midst of every event, good or bad. God uses everything, big or small, good or bad, to challenge our normal way of being in the world, just as Elijah was challenged to let go of his expectations of how God would come to him. These expectations were deeply rooted in Elijah and our expectations and perspectives are deeply implanted in us. Before we can receive God as God really is, we have to learn to let go of all these. This is a painful process, a real dark night, but essential so that we can bear the light of day and be prepared for the encounter with God.
Our Carmelite tradition speaks of a journey of transformation. The events of our life are not meaningless. At the heart of every event, God is calling to us to take a step forward on our journey. God is calling to us to take a step forward from our predictable way of judging people, including ourselves, and situations to begin to see things from God’s perspective. The end of our journey is our transformation when we are able to look upon all that is as if with God’s eyes and love what we see as if with God’s heart. We need to eat and drink lest the journey be too long for us. We find the necessary food for our journey in the daily celebration of the Eucharist, pondering the Word of God and in our Carmelite tradition.
Our faith, hope and love, those three essential Christian virtues, are at the beginning of our journey, based on what we have learned from others. As we continue on the journey, our human reasons for belief, for hoping in God and for loving as Christ commanded, begin to fail us. They are no longer sufficient. We can throw it all in because the journey is too precarious and the end is uncertain or we can reject the messenger and stay right where we are. Or we can continue the journey into the night. An essential element on our journey towards transformation is the dark night. This was never intended to be gloomy and impossible but an invitation to let go of our human and limited way of thinking, loving and acting so that we can think, love and act according to God’s ways.
John of the Cross gives masterful descriptions of various elements that go to make up the night but it is not uniform for everyone. The night is experienced by each person in a different way and is made precisely to assist the purification of the particular individual. The dark night is not a punishment for sin or infidelity but is a sign of the nearness of God. The dark night is God’s work and leads to the complete liberation of the human person. For this reason it is to be welcomed despite the pain and confusion involved. The dark night can be experienced not only by individuals but by groups and whole societies.
The journey of transformation usually lasts a long time because the purification and change that is wrought in the human being is so profound. This is not just a change of idea or opinion; it is a complete transformation of how we relate to the world around us, to other people and to God. There is a saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes before we can understand another person. Jesus warned his followers not to judge (Mt. 7,1; Lk. 6, 37) and the reason is very simple: we cannot see things from another person’s perspective and therefore we do not know what are the motives behind his or her actions. The process of Christian transformation, however, leads the human being towards a profound change of perspective, from his/her own particular way of seeing things to God’s way. This involves a profound purification and emptying of all our attachments so that we can be filled with God.
Of course we need to make plans and goals and work towards their realisation. All of this needs to be done in an atmosphere of prayer in order to attempt to discern God’s will and not just do what the majority wants, or even worse, to do what we want as individuals in a selfish way. No matter how much time we spend praying about our plans before we make decisions, there is no guarantee of their success. We know by bitter experience that all sorts of problems can arise to spoil our plans and to thwart our intentions.
This experience must not make us fatalists, refusing to plan ahead for fear of failure. We are called to work with Jesus Christ for the development of God’s Kingdom. In order to become citizens of the Kingdom of God, we must change. God is creating a masterpiece in the life of each one of us and is bringing about the fulfilment of His plan of salvation through our lives and through our work. The great artist usually does not like to display an unfinished work and so we are not permitted to see what God is doing before the time. God is at work in our world and in our lives. Let us try to co-operate with God by continuing the journey towards transformation. Our Lady accompanies us on this journey as our Mother, Sister and Patroness. So do not let us falter. “Eye has not seen nor has ear heard, nor has the human heart conceived what God has in store for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2,9).