For those who long for a life of meaning...
From the Foreword of Holy Thirst: Essentials of Carmelite Spirituality
I can still see the light of the moon reflected on the snowcovered ground outside. It was a quiet winter evening in 1985 when my mother gathered us together— she, my dad, and I—and we knelt down as a family to pray. Martial law, which had been instituted by the totalitarian regime in Poland to destroy the opposition, had just ended, but the images on the news of people in the streets run over by tanks were very present in our memory. As we knelt, we faced a small picture of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and mom held a typed booklet with a shiny red cover that had been produced by an underground association of the faithful. We began to pray the novena.
Our lives were about to drastically change. I had just found out that my father was about to leave for the US, after having been granted permission from the American consulate. My parents had known for a while but were afraid to tell me in case I, with the innocence and eagerness of the small boy that I was, shared it with my classmates. They feared that government officials would show up and confiscate my father’s passport, preventing him from leaving. I understood that now that I knew, I had to keep quiet. Our nightly novena to the Little Flower of Jesus gave me a sense of reassurance during this scary time, that the motherly presence of God would hold us securely, not only now, but in the years to come.
The Poland of my childhood was a place of violence and tragedy, but also hope. When our government was eager to keep us in check by any means necessary, we decided to live our lives with our invisible—but all too real—holy friends, who strengthened our resolve not to break. Saints like Thérèse, and the many miraculous stories of their presence among us, made us feel stronger than the violence of the state. It was in those days that my heart was first touched by something that continues to stay with me to this very day. It was then and there that I first experienced what I later recognized on the tear-stained pages of St. John of the Cross. My soul was marked, and something of the way of Carmel took root and began to grow.
As you hold this collection of writings in your hands, it is important to recall the beginnings of Carmelite spirituality, a beginning that takes us back to the twelfth century and the time of the Crusades. A band of brothers—conscientious objectors, of sorts—witnessed firsthand the clash of civilizations and all that it entailed. They knew death, they knew loss, and their very souls were bruised. The only next step that they could envision was to leave the world as they knew it and settle on the sacred mountain known for centuries to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the holy home of the Prophet Elijah. They settled there, seeking peace and rest, and adopted the Prophet Elijah as their spiritual father and guide, following where they imagined he would want them to go.1
Once there, they most likely encountered the tradition of the ascetics present there for centuries, men and women who, in those surroundings, encountered God’s caressing silence. What slowly emerged out of the dialectic of the heart that most likely took place between the new and the old hermits was a way of being with God that we now identify as Carmelite. This specific tradition was later formalized by St. Albert, the great Patriarch of Jerusalem, who wrote a Rule of Life (see below— the first selection in these writings) stipulating that their lives were to be spent in constant awareness of God.
As time went by, and as circumstance required, Carmelites migrated to Europe and were slowly absorbed into the mendicant renewal that was sweeping medieval Europe. Not a Western order by any means, they carried in their hearts a longing for that original home of Mt. Carmel and their collective memory of their experience there, where, together with the Prophet Elijah, their lives felt held by a loving God. They were poor, and they taught and ministered to the urban poor like other mendicants, but their hearts were deeply rooted in that place of silence overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. They turned that silence into acts of adoration and service and brought it with them wherever they went, walking the European streets while keeping a little piece of the desert at the very core of their spiritual heart.
With the sixteenth-century renewals and reforms of St. Teresa of Ávila, the way of the desert was brought back foreword into the center. The Teresian houses infused new life into the church, creating spiritual maps and offering guidance on how a life transfigured in God can look. Our ideas were revolutionized, and a contemplative spirituality available to all, not just professed monastics, was conceived. We were enabled to see that Mary and Martha must be combined and that prayer should prepare us for action, since our spiritual lives always take place in the context of hearing the cry of the poor and the neglected. The Teresian houses and monasteries gave birth to countless holy women and men, whose holy fragrance continues to show us the way.
Today, we once again hear the language of the clash of civilizations as news of violence, poverty, ecological degradation, and religious fundamentalism fills our screens. Many of us feel paralyzed and unsure of how to tend to our broken hearts, consumed by the helplessness of the situation. My family, many years ago, in a time of brokenheartedness and overwhelming, decided to seek refuge in one of the most beloved saints of Carmel. Perhaps we too may befriend the holy women and men present on the pages of this book and feel held by them. May this book and these saints help us to feel seen and understood. May their words help us to name our longings for a life in which our wounds and uncertainties are touched and transfigured by God. May their prayers and sharings give us a way forward. May the many young people who feel that the world they are inheriting is not a home and that the religious institutions of our day are incapable of speaking to their longings for a life that matters find some solace among these Carmel saints. And, just as in the early days, when the newcomers to Mt. Carmel and those of old gave birth to a new and yet ancient way, may these saints present here become conversation partners for this young generation, which is not necessarily interested in joining monasteries, but whose search for new ways of being with God, a new kind of monasticism if you will, is just as real as those who are. May their search be marked with the spirit of Carmel and may the way of the saints of Carmel become their way.