Today we celebrate the 450th Anniversary of the Foundation of the Discalced Carmelite Friars at Duruelo, Spain. The humble beginnings of the friars are truly something to marvel at when we consider the ways they really lived. Our own St. John of the Cross and his fellow friars sought silence, solitude, and an ever more penetrating experience of God and His “strong love”. Thanks to new biographies and reflections on these beginnings, we’re able to consider how we can walk in their footsteps.
Before beginning formation as a Carmelite, I thought I understood the nature of withdrawing from the world to be more present to God and respond more radically to His love. After two years of formation I’ve realized that I’ve only scratched the surface. Nevertheless, I am beginning to see that God is more deeply present to us than we can comprehend. We’re always in His presence, and He rejoices over us when we’re present to Him. With this thought, I find within me the same question John posed to his fellow Carmelites and really to all Christians, “With what procrastinations do you wait, since from this very moment you can love God in your heart?” (Sayings of Light and Love, #26) It’s not a question of reprimand but one of growing, urgent love. It is Christ calling after us from ahead, from our “deepest centers”, where we can come and be with him in peace and union. Where we can realize that He has given everything to us and we can give everything back.
This vocation doesn’t promise endless bliss and sweet spiritual joys, but rather genuine happiness. My classmate and I were given the grace to discover that the humble beginnings of the friars in Duruelo were not easy. It was cold, lonely, painful, and demanding of all of their efforts. Needless to say, the cross was not absent in the slightest, nor did these holy friars want it to be. They rejoiced simply to be with one another in community, to encounter God together, and to allow the ever-growing love they discovered in Him to pour out in their ministry to the local faithful. When generous rich townspeople invited them to come and dine in their houses, John and his fellow friars gracefully declined, saying that they were far happier to be with God and their brothers in humble, simple poverty.
The one defining characteristic of their experience (and hopefully ours as well) was true freedom. Freedom to learn directly from God the exquisite ways He loves us and wants to share His Divine Life with us. When we are lonely (as they surely were at times) we can remember that we are never without God, who is All-Love, who created us and dwells in every fiber of our being. When we are cold and lacking drive in the pursuit of charity, we can remember that God is a living flame of Love leaping up into our lives to draw us on in perseverance to the goal of sanctity. When we are in pain from any of life’s griefs and trials, we can remember that God is not just statically present in our hearts, but wants us to know that we can always find refuge and healing in Him. If we can learn to recollect ourselves in love and bear our crosses with Him, as He did for us, we’ll be able to authentically share that light and strength with all those we minister to.
Of course, this takes time, for us as friars, to even begin to comprehend (there is a reason we need roughly six years of formation), but the reality is there from the get-go. Not long after joining we may realize that community life can be difficult, prayer can be ‘Sahara desert’ dry, self-denial really digs at our self-will, and ministry can seem entirely unrewarding. But in the end, what other reason are we Discalced Carmelite Friars except to love God and to prove our love for Him?
This is the very reason John of the Cross insisted on silence when it came to speaking about the life they lived at Duruelo. There is an account of a conversation that John had with his fellow friar Antonio, who was one of the first friars to join the reform. In late November 1591, as John was nearing death, he was in bed surrounded by friars who were all curious to know about their life at Duruelo. Antonio began sharing, and immediately John interrupted to remind him of the promise they made to never speak of that mysterious, hidden period of their lives.
Their lives then, and our lives now, are meant only to give Glory to God. We are called to never look back, never to selfishly seek to reap the fruits of what we’ve given to God; which in truth is only a return for the ineffable gifts he’s already showered on us. What should speak loudest for us and from us, is the love we bear for God with all our heart, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as Christ Himself. Then we leave the rest in the silence of God’s hands.