One of the most comical memories of my time spent in the Carmelite Novitiate was when I was walking down the novitiate cloister and I saw our Australian Mother Prioress (she was my FAVORITE Mother of all… besides Mary). I was excited to see her there, because typically only the Novice Mistress is found roaming in the novice cloister; she was also staring very intently out the window up toward the sky at something. I stopped and looked at what she was staring at, with her same intensity, and I still laugh as I remember her telling me, “So sister… we would not normally stop to stare like this, right? We Carmelites try to keep recollection, but as Prioress I HAVE to know what is going on, so this is the only reason I am looking unrecollected (she was staring up at our Church steeple that was under construction) is because it’s my job to keep an eye on things.”
She said it with such Motherly amusement and affection, and we often laughed about it later at recreations. “Mother, remember that one day when I was horribly unrecollected?” We have all heard that saying, “out of sight, out of mind” and really, I believe it was Our Holy Father John of the Cross’ favorite expression and applied it to his life from moment to moment. Recollection does not merely mean keeping your eyes cast down; of course, that is one definition, and we can call that EXTERIOR recollection, but even more so, the importance of INTERIOR recollection must be addressed, as well. Everything begins with the exterior and if we begin being recollected by not looking curiously around us, it not only teaches us to stay focused on God, but when we are recollected we are not tempted to curiosity.
We are naturally curious thanks to Eve (“thanks Eve”), and there is a time and place to practice this exterior recollection. I am not saying when one goes on a hike to look straight down at the ground without looking up (that’s just silly)… Our Holy Father John loved nature and when he was in prayer surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation, he only drew nearer to Our Lord through the outdoors. He understood how to properly see Christ in all things in an ordered manner. We can apply exterior recollection in very specific instances throughout the day:
For example, during Mass or while praying in an adoration chapel, someone walks in. Challenge yourself not to look up to see WHO is walking through the door. Another great example is when a child cries during Mass or someone makes a loud noise, I cannot relay how many times at least ONE person turns around to see what happened or who caused the commotion. I stay recollected when those types of things happen for etiquette (it’s rude to stare and embarrass someone who perhaps KNEW they made noise) and to stay focused on Jesus and Mary in my interior. If we form the habit to stay FOCUSED on not being curious at what noises were made etc. you will discover that, out of habit, you will naturally not bother looking up because you have trained yourself in this exterior recollection. EVEN when, from the corner of your eye, you see several heads turn to see who made the noise. It is tempting sometimes; don’t give in!
Master this and the interior recollection is second nature. The interior can be summed up in John’s words: “it is a wisdom to not look at the deeds, words and lives of another”. Remember, in a few blog posts back about discernment, I blogged about how a dear friend reminded me of Our Holy Mother Teresa’s words of we should only associate with those who are in the same mansions as ourselves? If Our Holy Mother did not say that and it was me saying those words for the first time, I would feel prideful in letting them pass my lips… and that is why I am SO glad that she is the one saying what I have sensed deep down for some time. Don’t take my word for it, take it from the mouth of the Doctor and Carmelite who has been around the block and corridors of the seven mansions more times than we can count.
This of course does not mean we pass someone, they say hi and we in turn say “oh excuse me, I do not associate myself with those outside my mansion”. Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet put it well when she was forced to dance with someone she detested. She began speaking, just to provide some conversation out of charity, and eventually Mr. Darcy asks: “do you talk by rule when you are dancing?” and she said, “Yes! Sometimes it is best because then we might have the advantage of saying as little as possible”. Does that make sense? That is one of my favorite quotes by Lizzie because she is saying if we simply, out of charity, talk about everything BUT what truly matters, when it comes to someone we know we cannot share our interior with, we are actually guarding our interior silence. Even though on the surface things appear completely normal and as though one is simply engaging in small talk. One way to tell if someone is not in the same mansion as you is they tend to sevre your union with God (even though they are devout and holy souls) and can leave you weary in spirit after speaking with them. Let us break these three things up:
1.) It is a wisdom to not look at the deeds of another. John does not mean to NOT look at virtue or read the good deeds found in the lives of Our Lord, Our Lady and the Saints but I believe he here means that, due to our fallen human nature, many of us tend to get discouraged when we look at the deeds of others who are making their own progress in the spiritual life and perhaps are in a different mansion. By looking at their deeds this is where the devil works his way into our minds and plants thoughts like, “that person is so much holier than you” and the “evil thoughts of comparison” take root in our hearts. But if we choose to NOT look at their deeds, especially if we KNOW it will cause us to fall into discouragement, well, “out of sight, out of mind.” What we don’t know will not intrude on our peace and union with the Beloved.
2.) It is a wisdom to not look at the words of another. This does not apply to a director or confessor, on the contrary, we should by all means look at their words when they are trying to guide us. But this does not apply to ALL members of the clergy, especially when the priest is NOT your director, knows little of your background and therefore, is not a proper person to judge, because they do not know God’s unique design and path for you (especially when they do not even know your first name). I myself have had to learn to act like a duck when even members of the clergy try and put their two sense into my life pursuits when they didn’t know my first name, last name, childhood, life before Carmel, life during Carmel and life after Carmel… and so, how on earth can they be a proper judge? Logic.
I have gotten to a point where I do not seek advice from priests unless Our Lady makes it absolutely clear that they are learned, fatherly AND orthodox. The combination of those three virtues is actually exceedingly hard to find. Teresa herself wanted those qualities in a guide after what she suffered to begin her discalced reform. And so, when priests try to give advice EVEN when I did not ask for it, and it does not suit the voice of the Holy Ghost for my own distinct path, I remain cheerful on the outside, but more importantly we must learn to be cheerful on the inside, because if we learn to apply the Good Shepherd discourse in our life from moment to moment, discerning the Voice of the Shepherd becomes an instant recognition and we can learn IMMEDIATELY what is of God and what is not at every instant of our lives.
That is truly the stuff of divine union! You will know you are making progress when you hear words contrary to the will of God and you do not need to seek outside help about the matter. You will have learned to KNOW the Voice of the Beloved for yourself. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me”. Do not for a second believe that you need to seek guidance from a priest FOR ALL THINGS; this totally would debunk the Good Shepherd discourse. Remember, John reminds us that the whole point of a director is to not answer all our questions, but to help us come in union with the ways of the Holy Ghost if we ourselves cannot do it on our own. Being able to come in union with the Holy Ghost without outside help is a sign of spiritual maturity…
Our Lord often makes us exercise our intellects with uncomfortable situations of even priests misunderstanding us, not because He is being mean or annoying (though sometimes it certainly feels that way), but He wants us to experience different encounters, because it is only through experiences of tasting what is repugnant and what is consoling that we begin to learn what to accept and what to reject. It is not just words from the clergy, but also this most especially applies to the lay faithful, or close friends and family members, who, even though may mean well, are not always the proper judge with understanding what Our Lord is doing in the heart. I say this often, but outward appearances are a VERY poor judge of who we really are. “Out of sight, out of mind”. What we know is not from God is truly a wisdom and this comes from HEARING the words of another and not letting it disrupt our interior recollection when it opposes the divine will for YOU.
3.) It is a wisdom to not look at the lives of another. This is the hardest one of all I believe. I did a lot of sports in high-school and have naturally always been extremely competitive. One friend in college once told me, “You are EXTREMELY COMPETITIVE” and I said, “no I am not” and she said, “oh, yes you are.” Even when I walked the Camino in Spain, I always had this urge that I had to walk the fastest and come in first every day. I do not know what on earth I was even trying to prove, but about mid trip I realized, after a humbling experience, how ridiculous I was acting. I look back on my life and see how often I have sought to come in first and then Our Lord made me come in last to cease my pride (this is why Carmelites can’t play games because we can’t take losing).
My point with all of this is how many of us can look at another member of the Church and say, “why is everything falling into place for them, at what appears to be the perfect timing, and here I am praying as well and NONE of my prayers are being answered?” These are just examples, but if we train ourselves to not look at the lives of other faithful Catholics and learn to focus on our own interior where Our Lady and the Holy Ghost are at work at every given moment to produce Jesus Crucified in YOU (even when you are doing what seems to be nothing, the Holy Ghost and Our Lady are always doing SOMETHING), then you will learn to rather focus on your own sanctity and union with the Blessed Trinity rather than other holy souls seemingly being more loved by God or what have you.
The list goes on and on, but divine union does not simply happen overnight… the truth is, it is a process and if we get into the habit of keeping interior and exterior recollection little by little, before we realize it, the process will have been so gradual, after our firm habits have been kept, that we will find ourselves at the top of the mountain of perfection where Our Lord will have “laid your trail that had no end except in God. Be generous: The Master Himself will draw near to serve you. He will put on His apron, seat you at table and serve you.”