CARMELITE MONASTERY, TRANQUILLA,

KNOCK, CLAREMORRIS,

CO. MAYO, IRELAND.

 

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EUCHARIST AND SACRIFICE:

SHARING BREAD AND WASHING FEET
AS A CARMELITE NUN

Written by a Sister in the Community
(Reprinted by kind permission of the editor of the Review,
Mount Carmel)

 

Some years ago, I had the unusual privilege of bringing the Eucharist to one of our sisters in hospital. As I sat in the bus, tenderly holding the pyx in my hand, the raucous music of the radio gave way to the sound of a gentler pop song:

The smile on your face lets me know that you need me…
The touch of your hand says you’ll catch me whenever I fall;
You say it best – when you say nothing at all!

It was a special moment for me, taking me back to childhood and my thanksgiving after Holy Communion. It invariably went: ‘Lord, I don’t know what to say to you, but when I’m grown up and become a nun, I’ll know what to say then, so I’ll just keep quiet now – many thanks.’ I never did learn what to say! Silent music, as the Lord reminded me through the song, is in fact the proper language of love. However, it won’t get this written – unless the editor will agree to leave the next few pages blank! So, where do I begin to explore what Eucharist and sacrifice mean in my life as a Carmelite nun?

 

Tender and tricky words

The Eucharistic sacrifice forms the centre of the Church’s life and, therefore, of my own life. This great sacrifice of love makes everything relative. As John Paul II has expressed it, in his apostolic letter Abide with us, Lord: ‘In Jesus, in his sacrifice, in his unconditional “yes” to the will of the Father, is contained the “yes”, the “thank you” and the “amen” of all humanity’ (No.26) ‘Eucharist’ is a tender word, vibrating with joy and thanksgiving.

‘Sacrifice’, though, is a tricky word. It means the proper attitude of humanity before the Creator; it also means the giving up of something good and valued, for the sake of something better.
There is, however, a history of its use to which I never respond well. It is when the emphasis turns away from God and the good, towards ‘me’ and the recording of ‘my’ sacrifices – little or great. Each ‘thank you’, ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ we make does involve sacrifice on our part, but what have we got that we have not been given? All is gift, all is grace; it is the paschal sacrifice of Jesus that gives any meaning to our human notion of sacrifice. In childhood, Thérèse was taught to count ‘her’ sacrifices, but she soon realised that it was the Lord’s sacrifice that really counted.

All she had to offer was her gratitude, her surrender to Merciful Love, and her ‘empty hands ’. All who walk the way of Carmel learn this sooner or later.

Citizens of this planet

Carmelite nuns, like everyone else, are – contrary to certain rumours! – citizens of this planet and do not inhabit a rarefied stratosphere! We are called, like all Christians, to love God with all our hearts and our neighbour as ourselves, and to follow the ‘new’ commandment: to love as Jesus loves. This is what being a Christian is all about. We live this out in many and various ways and through different vocations. All of us are called to close union with God; everyone gets an invitation to the Bridegroom’s feast – we just travel different roads to get there.

Carmelite nuns come from many cultures, countries and backgrounds, but our life of prayer at the service of the church unites us. With all our differences of culture or expression, we meet at the one place where all humanity meets: the wounded and risen feet of Jesus. And we feed, daily, from the ‘two tables’: the table of the word of God and the table of the bread. This ‘daily bread’ strengthens us for the journey into the will of God – which is the highest state of prayer – and it is open to everyone who says ‘yes’ to God with all their heart. ‘Aye, and there’s the rub!’ A wholehearted ‘yes’ is not easily come by in any path of life. Yet the will of God is not something beyond our grasp. Jesus has told us what it is:

And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should not lose any of all that he has given me, but that I should raise them all up at the last day. For this is my Father’s will, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him [literally: cleaves to / trusts in / relies on him], should have eternal life, and I will raise him up from the dead at the last day. (Jn 6:39-40).

Jesus tells us all this in the context of explaining that he is the ‘bread of life’ and that it is the Father who gives us the bread from heaven (cf. Jn 6). The mystery of the Son’s life, death and resurrection holds the lifeline to the life, death and resurrection of each of us. And we take hold of it, and share it with others, through the Eucharist.

‘Love endures all things’

The Song of Songs tells us that, even if we gave up all we had for love, we would think nothing of the loss (cf. Sg 8:7). It was love alone that made the incarnation possible: the love of God and the love of Mary. Apart from love, sacrifice of any sort would be meaningless. ‘Love’s hands will dip into any water.’I have always loved these words from Caryll Houselander [Do you have full reference?]; she uses them in the context of a mother looking after the basic needs of her helpless child.

We are the helpless children of the Father who does not disdain to look after our humblest needs. We balk at the idea of God’s hands dipping into the foul water of our sins. Our pride gets in the way. And in the great exchange between heaven and earth, it is human pride that needs to be sacrificed. God’s love for us is beyond our reckoning.

This love is the beginning and end of each Christian journey, and the Eucharist is its expression and life blood.

Our different vocations in life – be it priesthood, marriage, single or religious life – have elements of sacrifice common to all, and some elements that are particular to each one. Cloistered Carmelite life has its own demands. The fundamental choice of living out our love of God and neighbour in this way of life affects all the daily choices we make. We, too, are called to the service of love – the ‘washing of feet’ – but in a simple, hidden way: by tending to the needs of our sisters and through our apostolate of prayer. This is a hidden form of service: for the most part, we have to forgo the satisfaction of seeing results. Being faithful to the daily rhythm of liturgical and personal prayer, to work, community life and the times set aside for solitude, calls for an open heart and willing hands. We may have a natural leaning towards one or other element of the life and must watch out that we remain faithful to the others. Humble enough stuff, but sometimes not as easy as it seems. No one responds in just the same way to each element of love or sacrifice.

Carmelite spirituality has been given a ‘teaching’ role in the Church, especially through our three ‘Doctors’. It has a universal appeal, I believe, because it is totally centred on the Gospel and the ‘two tables’ of Scripture and the Eucharist. It is here that the ordinary, everyday sacrifices of living a life of love find meaning. Our Carmelite saints lead us into the basic truth from which everything else flows: God loved us first.

He proved it by sending Jesus who, by living, dying and rising from the dead, showed the depths of God’s love for us and freed us to return love for love. God does not despise our limited human response; he looks for it with love and compassion. Carmel teaches us that it is from the depths of God’s heart we must read the story of our own lives. Yes, life holds pain as well as joy; pain can be a stumbling block or a stepping stone to God. Each ‘yes’ to God, however tentative, can transform not only our own lives, but also the lives of all our brothers and sisters who do not yet know that ‘God loved the world so much that he gave us his only Son’ (Jn 3:16).

Past, present and future

‘O Sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, here the memory of his passion is renewed, our minds are filled with grace and we are given a pledge of the glory that is to be ours.’
Through this antiphon, written for the feast of Corpus Christi, Thomas Aquinas encapsulates the whole theology of the Eucharist.

He shows that it is through the mystery of ‘God made man’,that the past, present and future of humanity touch the infinity of God. Each of us carries into our own vocation the realities that made us who we are. The fact that I am an Irishwoman, with my own national and personal history, does not alter the charism of Carmel that is now my ‘homeland’ on earth. However, it does give a certain nuance to the way I live my Carmelite life.

Just a few miles down the road from our Carmel here in Knock are the ruins of St Mary’s Carmelite monastery, Ballinasmale (1288-1870). The heroic faithfulness of the Carmelite friars to the people of this area, especially in times of persecution, is still remembered. For them, no sacrifice – not even death itself – could be compared with the holy mass.

Living with my grandmother and her aunt Margaret, from my fourth year, taught me much about the devotion of my ancestors to the Eucharist. Nothing in life was more important to those two women. Through them I learnt that everyone is called to love God and their neighbour. For them daily mass was a privilege, and out of their poverty they shared what they had with others. In her last illness, when her mind was rambling with fever, Margaret slipped out of the house, unseen, and was found, unconscious, on the steps of the local church. How well she knew the fount which freely flowed, although ’twas night! While dying of cancer, Nana still baked the two trays of hot scones which greeted my return from Sunday mass: one for our own breakfast and one to be shared with our neighbours.

I carried these positive ‘remembrances’ with me into Carmel. However, I also carried some negative ones: to say the least, my childhood was less than ‘normal’. As a teenager, I could have written Paul Simon’s anthem of youthful isolation and alienation – ‘I am a Rock’ – in my own blood! When the Lord led me to Carmel I did not expect an easy life. I knew no such thing existed – for anyone – but I was very conscious of the privilege of living in Carmel, so it took a while for the sacrifices to surface; but surface they did. To my surprise, there was no ‘generic’ form of sacrifice that the Lord wanted from me as a Carmelite nun. He cut straight to the quick: he wanted unconditional surrender to himself, and he wanted me to acknowledge my need of others. The former I knew; the latter God has spent most of my life teaching me.

The last farthing

‘“The Kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field.” “I want to buy that field, and I want to find that treasure”… “The price of the field is the last farthing,” the old man said, in his gentle tones. “Whether thou hast four farthings or four thousand thou hast the wherewithal to buy it, so being that thou dost pay the last one.”’ The price of Love’s kingdom is, indeed, the ‘last farthing’, and Christ paid it on the cross.

In so doing, he gave us free access to his Father and left us the wonder of the Eucharist as food for the journey, as a ‘pledge of glory’. As we share in the Eucharist, we are empowered to respond in like coin. Our ‘farthings’ may seem pitiably few to us, but it is only the last one that counts – the one we would like to keep hold of! I am still working on letting go of mine. However, the Lord continues to coax it out of my hand each day as he offers me the priceless gift of the Eucharist.

I no longer sing, with Paul Simon:

If I had never loved
I never would have cried…
I touch no one
and no one touches me…
I am a Rock, I am an Island

but:

Lord, how good you are and how gentle is your Spirit.
When you wished to show your goodness to your children
you gave them bread from heaven,
filling the hungry with good things
and sending the rich away empty.

 

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