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“Creative Fidelity”

Paul Chandler, O.Carm.

International Congress of Carmelite Schools
Terenure College, Dublin
8-13 April 2010

“Creative Fidelity”
Paul Chandler, O.Carm.

I want to begin with a confession and then a small conversion story.

First the confession: I am a medieval historian and know something about Carmelite spirituality, but I have never taught at school level, and my ignorance of how schools work is both broad and deep. You will all know far more about schools than I do, and also about young people. So I think my task is to offer some reflections about the Carmelite spiritual tradition, and to suggest some questions for your consideration about how it might enrich our ministry of education today. And if I make generalisations about other things they are offered for your testing and perhaps your contradiction..

Second, the conversion story: Some years ago Fr Paul Cahill, the principal of Whitefriars College, asked me to speak to senior staff members about Carmelite spirituality as part of a process of long-term preparation for a future in which there may no longer be Carmelites on the staff of the college. To tell the truth I was not enthusiastic about the task. I had the feeling that if a religious order cannot continue in a school, it should leave graciously. We should not stalk the corridors, I thought, as ghosts, trying to maintain something that belonged to the past: a Carmelite or Marist or Mercy or Salesian ethos. Is it not enough to have a Catholic school, without ghosts? Why would we need to cling on after our time has gone? I don’t believe I said this to him at the time, but Paul is a clever person and perhaps intuited it. Before he would let me speak to the staff, he made me listen. Each of the teachers spoke briefly about how they had experienced a Carmelite quality in the college.

I was greatly impressed, not to mention rather chastened, by what I heard. The deputy principal, who was in charge of discipline, said that there was a maternal quality to discipline at Whitefriars, which he thought contrasted with the paternal discipline in other boys’ schools where he had taught: the statue of the Virgin Mary with a teenage Jesus at the entrance of the school, he suggested, was a symbol of something very real in its ethos. A new teacher, who had taught in schools run by the Christian Brothers and the Salesians, commented on yard duty: in a Christian Brothers’ school, he said, yard duty was about controlling student behaviour; with the Salesians about preventing trouble; with the Carmelites about being a presence to the boys. Another spoke about how the school was run not by a vertical chain of command but by real collaboration, and that even the youngest students were genuinely invited to collaborate in the task of forming a community in which each person could feel respected and cared for; from their first says they were challenged to be brothers to one another and take responsibility for the development of a caring community. Another said that once you accept that every student has a spiritual journey to make during the course of his life, certain approaches to education become possible and others impossible. There was a real effort to accept and respect each student as a unique individual with a unique potential which was only beginning to unfold. And so it went.

It was very clear that these teachers has really absorbed many of the fundamental notions of Carmelite spirituality. They were perhaps not expressing them in exactly the same terms the friars use in their talk, or in the language that is found in the Constitutions of the Order, but the fundamental themes were there, clearly identified and perceptively expressed. And they wanted to make the point to me that these values, which they had experienced in action in the school, were precious to them. They wanted to find ways to keep them alive permanently, even if the day should come when they would have to preserve this tradition on their own.

I had to change my initial ideas. This was not about clinging to a past that might soon be gone, but about building on deep foundations. It was not about ghosts, but about a different kind of spirit.

I don’t want to talk at length about the history of the Carmelites, as I think most of you will be familiar with it. However, it’s perhaps worth making a few brief comments.

We are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first school of an Order that is more than 800 years old. This tells us at once that the school apostolate has not been historically central to the Order. Carmelites are not primarily a teaching Order. We do not really have a worked-out educational philosophy, like the De La Salle Brothers, or the Jesuits, or the Loreto Sisters, or the many other teaching congregations. But that does not mean that the Carmelites were not interested in education. On the contrary, their decision in the 1240s to change their hermit way of life and join the new movement of preaching friars immediately involved them in an ambitious educational enterprise. The Order is still in a direct line of succession from the studia or religious schools of the Middle Ages, which were an important step in the evolution of the modern university. The friars ran their schools for their own members as part of their preparation for effective ministry adapted to their times. They aimed not only at book-learning, but had a three-fold goal: intellectual formation at the highest level of which each individual was capable; professional formation for the tasks of ministry; and a search for personal wisdom -- and these three goals were meant to be integrated in a single ideal of human formation oriented to service of the Christian community. So our schools, even if they appear relatively young, have their roots in an ancient and dynamic educational and cultural tradition.

I think you also know that, from the beginning, the Carmelites saw themselves as a fraternity, a group of brothers (and later sisters). In organising themselves and their way of life, they chose to stress not the vertical bonds that made them a hierarchical society (though they were), but the horizontal bonds that made them a fellowship of brothers. The teachers at Whitefriars had picked up this tradition as a spirit of collaboration and shared decision-making, a willingness to listen and consult, a spirit of mutual respect.

You also know that the Carmelites come from a contemplative tradition that stressed the importance of prayer as an orientation of one’s whole self to God. They were convinced that this orientation of oneself to God is also the surest way to the development of one’s God-given potential. The teachers at Whitefriars saw this ideal reflected especially in the recognition that each indidiual has a personal spiritual journey to make, one which lasts a lifetime.

I think you are also aware that the Carmelites as part of the friar movement were committed to pastoral ministry and especially to the preaching of the Gospel. Those teachers saw this part of the Order’s ethos reflected in the school’s stress on effective pastoral care for staff, students and their families, and its insistence that the students take responsibility for one another.

Those teachers had intuited the convictions about itself that the friars express in their Constitutions as fraternity, contemplation, and service, and also the Order’s devotion to Mary. I think Fr Miceal O’Neill will talk more about the Carmelite ethos tomorrow, so I won’t dwell further on these things now. I want to make a few reflections along a slightly different track.

Seeing and growing

Forty-five years ago in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued its Declaration on Christian Education Gravissimum educationis. The document says first of all that a Catholic school shares most of its aims with all schools: they are the cultural and educational goals and the personal development of young people which are prized, of course, by everyone. The declaration continues: ‘What makes the Catholic school distinctive is its attempt to generate a community climate in the school that is permeated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and love. It tries to guide adolescents in such a way that personal development goes hand in hand with the development of the “new creature” that each one has become through baptism. It tries to relate all of human culture to the good news of salvation so that the light of faith will illumine everything that the students will gradually come to learn about the world, about life, and about the human person’ (GE 8).

If we had to sum up the Catholic tradition on schooling briefly, I think we might say that the challenge for a Catholic school is to offer students a way of seeing and a way of growing.

It offers a way of seeing themselves and the world: of seeing themselves as persons whose real life is the opposite of superficial, but goes down into mystery. In the language of the early church, this process of discovery was called “mystagogy”. It was the process of coming to a new understanding of yourself and the world, one which looked not merely at superficial things, but at those which are deepest in us and sometimes hidden until the time is right for their discovery. Mystagogy followed on from baptism: it was the process, or the adventure, if you like, of exploring what is in you but which you have not yet seen, the places of the heart where you are connected to the mystery of the universe, to the divine plan, to God himself.

This vision also challenges us to enter into a way of growing. In the language of the church, this is called conversion or transformation. It is the realisation of our fullest potential, of what the Gospel calls “life to the full”. It is a setting free to be fully human, to be a person who loves. It happens in especially our connection with God and in loving relationships with others; it creates community and has the power to reshape the world.

All this fits in perfectly well with the contemplative tradition of the Carmelites. The first Carmelites were pilgrims to the Holy Land, to Jerusalem. This journey, they knew quite well, was not an end in itself, like a package tour to see a bit of the world. It was a symbol of the spiritual pilgrimage that everyone is on, a journey which is life-long. The first Carmelites ended up on Mt Carmel precisely as people on the way, people on a journey, not merely to a location where you might go on the bus, but to a future that transcends our imaginations.

When St Teresa of Avila came to make her own statement of this long tradition, she did not hesitate to express it as a journey into one’s innermost self, one which takes you deep below the surface of life to its deepest reality, where God dwells in you.

It’s natural to think of education as a process of putting in to people what they do not yet have. It’s always a little startling, then, to remind ourselves that the word education comes from the Latin educere, which does not mean to put in, but to draw out. Educere also means to lead forth, to lead from the front. And it also means to assist at a birth: educere is what midwives do. Education at its profoundest level is about helping people to set out on life.

Young people on a journey

So, if you had to sum up the long spiritual tradition of the Order, which is, of course, a part of the longer spiritual tradition of Christianity, the idea of being on a life journey is perhaps not a bad way to do it. You all have a lot more experience of young people than I do, so you can weigh up whether this is correct or not, but I think this is perhaps a theme that appeals to young people in the twenty-first century, a good starting-point for their explorations and perhaps a good starting-point for our own reflection.

Nevertheless, there are great difficulties and challenges for Christian educators in many of the cultural situations of the contemporary world. Technological progress has brought enormous advantages and comforts to most of the world’s population. But there is also a widespread sense of spiritual unease.

In old times miners used to take a canary with them down the mine. If there were poisonous gases, the canary would die and so give a warning long before the miners would have realised the danger they were in. Young people are the canary in the mine today. Many commentators have remarked on their sense of uncertainty, their fear of commitment, their cynicism, their fickleness, their tendency to depression, their self-centredness, their violence and bullying, their loss of trust. These are among the danger signals for a society that is increasingly materialistic, consumerist, and secularised, that is fascinated by the superficial and trivial, that finds it difficult to commit itself to a long-term vision for the future, where people are alienated from one another, where material abundance covers spiritual emptiness.

Young people are often exceptionally generous, but their difficulty of finding meaning and value can make it hard to channel this generosity outside of a small circle. They find it difficult to have faith, and in many parts of the world this loss of faith is now passing from the level of personal crisis to become a social and cultural one.

If life is like a jigsaw puzzle, it is as though we have all the pieces but have lost the lid of the box: we don’t always know any more what picture we are meant to be putting together. We are left with fragments. This is often reflected in the post-modern popular culture of the young: fractured, high-speed, fragmentary, sometimes callous and alienating.

In the face of these many resistances, we have to admit that our efforts in Catholic education often seem to have much less effect than we hope. Sometimes we’re not even sure that we understand the religious questioning of the young or how best to respond to their restless and searching minds. We wonder how to communicate to them effectively a vision of the world which is in many respects deeply counter-cultural, which may seem to them outmoded or even discredited, which is contradicted every time they turn on the television.

At the same time, we see their great potential, their goodness, their honesty, their commitment to those hopes which have seized their imaginations, their energy, and also their need for the kind of guidance which will set them on the long path to personal wisdom.

Some insights of the Carmelite spiritual tradition

These are just a few amateur observations and I’m sure many of you would be able to reflect more deeply and accurately on these issues, and you’ll have a chance to do so in the course of the next few days.

I mention them partly because I wanted to illustrate how these reflections led me to think a bit more about how the Carmelite tradition which our schools inherit might provide some starting-points for further thought. It led me, somewhat to my own surprise, to thinking about St John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite mystic. I want to share a few reflections with you based on his insights. I hope they will not seem too abstract. However, I think it might be interesting to consider how they might be the foundation for spiritual practice in an educational context.

John’s writings are mostly concerned with the spiritual journey. His ideas about it are famously radical. He doesn’t bother much about recycling what we’ve already heard. He wants to cut straight to the bone. I wonder if he could be a good friend to us in a time when people, and especially young people, seem to have grown impatient of traditional religious ideas, which they seem to hear as just old clichés which no longer connect to their real life. But what is real life?

1) Memory transformed by hope. John suggests that most of us think we are defined by memory: we are what experience has made us. To know ourselves we must know our own story. In fact, much of our culture today is very oriented to personal experience. We are inclined to a sort of cultural and psychological egocentrism in which I am always the centre of my own world; and this is intensified in the culture of the young.

But, says John, this is ultimately a trap. My story will always be a little one. One of the challenges of being on a spiritual journey is to liberate yourself from this small thinking: in Christian thought we are not defined by our past, but by our future. That is what hope is: the openness of the Christian person to the future, to mystery, to growth. I am a seed. Young people realise very well that the future is before them, but the vision that is offered them is often a diminished one, a little story. The churches are the custodians of the big story of humanity: of the experience of our ancestors, but also of the sweep of the divine plan which is drawing us into a future we cannot imagine. But the church today doesn’t always seem to know how to announce the big story in a way that can attract the attention of a culture focussed on the little story of myself.

This is a great challenge. How do we capture the imagination of the young? How do we help them see that life and baptism have set them on a wonderful journey in which the Lord is their companion? How do we invite them to see that their best hope for themselves is in fact not to look just at themselves but to see that they are part of a people on pilgrimage? That surprising strength will come if they connect themselves to a long tradition of people like themselves? How do we invite the impatient young to be patient and persevering, because the most important questions are not clear to them yet?

2) Intellect transformed by faith. John of the Cross also suggests that we try to define ourselves by what we know. Young people today are very well-educated. They live in a high-speed information society that prizes multi-tasking and broad, if sometimes superficial, knowledge. If you don’t know something, you can google it on your iPhone and have the answer immediately. There has never been such ease of access to information.

But when it comes down to it, the most important things are still mysterious. We barely know ourselves or why we do the things we do. We certainly don’t know others, even if we pretend we do. And we do not know God. Modern fundamentalisms, which claim to know exactly who God is and what he wants have perhaps done more than anything else to bring religion into discredit in the world today. The Catholic tradition has always stressed, on the contrary, that God is infinitely beyond our language and imagination. A God who can be summed up is no God.

That is a difficult thought for young people, who are struggling to establish a sense of control over their world. They are impatient with non-answers to their questions. When they reject God they are usually rejecting a little god, a kind of idol, an adolescent god. Faith is not knowledge, but a radical openness to what is beyond our knowing.

How can we teach our young people religious truths, and at the same time invite them to begin to sense the idea of mystery? How do we invite them to consider that there might be a God beyond all the false images of God that are constructed for us, even in religion class? How can we give them a sense that religion is one of those things that can only be experienced through participation, and that to leave it behind too soon is only leaving baby religion behind, and never giving it a chance to grow? Of course, we teach our students prayers, but prayers can outlive their usefulness. How do we teach them to pray?

Do we teach them silence, the silence which is a response to a mystery that does not argue with you, but just is? Would it work if in every Carmelite school absolutely all activity stopped for 5 or 10 minutes each day? No movement, no speech, no prayers, no anything, just a time set aside for silence and meditation, for being still, for putting yourself in the presence of what is so much bigger than you that all words fail? Would this be a dramatic symbol for young people of what faith is about: not getting God in your pocket, not winning an argument, not knowing a lot of things, but of standing before the ultimate mystery, of letting yourself be embraced by love beyond explaining? Could a practice of silence work as a symbol whose power might only unfold for them later in life, when bigger questions start to emerge?

3) Will transformed by love. John of the Cross also says that we think we define ourselves by what we choose, by how we assert ourselves. We are, in fact, in the age of self-assertion, of self-made men, of success and achievement. Such things are necessarily important for young people. It is the right time of life for them. But they must give way, sooner or later, to surrender, especially to the surrender of love. A good teacher awakens students to their full potential, and that will never be achieved by self-assertion alone, but in community and in love.

Everyone knows that, and it is surely rare that a young person finishes school without coming face to face with some of the great challenges of human life which start us thinking about the meaning of life and love: the pain of loss and grief, the joys and hurts of friendship, the challenges of sexuality, the struggle for autonomy, the longing for love. These things simply happen, and challenge young people to make steps into maturity that are often not easy to take. Our challenge, I suppose, is how they can be placed in a larger context of life as a journey to God.

How can love be discovered as what Christians have called charity: a view of the world in which there is nobody anywhere who is not your brother or your sister? How do we invite our students to the Christian idealism that is seen in concrete practice? How do we tell them that superficiality and mediocrity are forbidden to them? That they must be people who make a difference to our community and our world, who will make some contribution to creating a world that is a decent place for everyone to live in, who will stand against violence, racism, sexism, injustice, prejudice, even if it costs, and will do so because they have been invited to participate in a vision greater than what they could construct for themselves.

By way of conclusion

Fundamentally, the spiritual tradition of the Carmelites says that everyone is a pilgrim. It invites each of us to set our sights high and to set our feet on the greatest of all journeys, the one that leads to God through our deepest and truest selves. It’s not always an easy path. Not everyone takes it in the same way or at the same pace. Often the consciousness of being a pilgrim only comes with age or with crisis.

Young people are often, understandably, not yet ready to reflect on where life is ultimately taking them. A few generations ago they were, in a certain sense, caught up in a crowd heading in more or less the same direction. They could be carried along until they were ready to stand on their own feet and make their own explorations. It was one of the great advantages of participating in a Christian community. But in many contexts now young people form a separate and sometimes alienated subculture. They are drawn to the elements of post-modern culture most critical of religious belonging and most suspicious of doctrines; the church’s many failings have disenchanted them deeply.

We probably cannot overcome many of these resistances while students are still in school. The challenge for us, it seems, is to light a fuse that will keep burning until the time is right to light a fire, or to plant a seed which will grow when its season comes.

I want to return to where I began. I was very impressed by the teachers at Whitefriars College. They surprised me with their deep and well-focused intuitions about the aims of a Carmelite school. However, there was something they did not talk about. I don’t want to suggest that it was not in their minds, but as far as I recall they did not say it out loud. They didn’t talk about Jesus as the ideal and leader of Christian life.

Our spiritual tradition is very strongly Christocentric. The spiritual journey which Carmelites speak about is not merely a journey to human maturity, nor even just a journey to a God far ahead of us. It is like the journey of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Eventually, the presence of Christ is revealed to us on the road: we recognise what was always there but we did not see.

Of course, we all know this. But it’s not always easy to present the image of Jesus in an attractive way in our present culture. Young people are not always ready even for this fundamental aspect of Christianity. They prefer other heroes. But in the end our greatest challenge is to find effective means to prepare the way for the Lord to reveal himself on the road when the time is right. We cannot make faith happen. That is not our work, but God’s. At best, educators can only be midwives for this birth. Our most important task is how to point young people to Christ, who in his self-giving love and vulnerability wants to draw everyone to himself.