A REFLECTION ON THE PRIESTHOOD
ALEXANDER OF MARY QUEEN BEAUTY OF CARMEL
We long to know your fulness, your life of risen power, for you alone can answer the challenge of this hour.
Even as we look towards Easter, these words of Margaret Clarkson express what I believe are the deepest sentiments of many in the Church at this hour: a Church broken and wounded by the painful reality of abuse and of the institutional failures around it; a Church crying out for healing and wholeness. Of its four defining marks – one, holy, catholic and apostolic – none seems to hang in the balance more than any other, in the eyes of believers and unbelievers alike, than the Church’s claim to holiness; and especially, its holiness as represented by the institution of the priesthood ordained by Christ for the sanctification of God’s people. Given the challenge of this hour of the Church, many solutions are proffered. Yet, only the restoration of the Church in holiness and as a truly priestly people can begin to heal the wounded and mend what is broken.
Holiness as the goal of Carmelite spirituality finds its confirmation in Scripture wherein God’s ardent desire for us is revealed: ‘Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy’ (cf. Lv 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; Dt 7:6; 1Pt 1:15-16). It is amazing that God desires nothing more or less than this radical equality in holiness. But why? St John of the Cross, with penetrating insight, comments that ‘the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved’ (SCb 28:1). And he would draw, throughout his writings, on the image of a ‘log of wood’ that gradually becomes transformed through being immersed in fire, and ultimately takes up the properties of the fire itself, to illustrate that this involves a process of transformation (cf. 2DN 10:1; LF 1:4). In this transformation in love, it is the Holy Spirit that is the principal agent. It is the Spirit that kindles the flame of love within us, and thus enables the transforming union between the lover and the Beloved to be attained. In other words, our holiness is, in the first place, God’s desire; and its accomplishment is also his.
Carmelite spirituality also identifies this process of transformation as an affair of the heart, and shows the absolute necessity of a heartful embrace of the process if we are to allow God to achieve his desire for us. But browsing through the pages of Scripture, we quickly discover that this has always proven a challenge to God’s people. Hence, the many prophetic voices in Scripture that highlight the need for a heart that constantly seeks the face of the Lord (cf. Ps 26/27:8). In his prayer on Mount Carmel, that the hearts of the people of Israel may turn back to the Lord (cf. 1Kgs 18:37), Elijah is a symbol of that ardent desire of a heart devoted to the Lord and transformed by that experience. This is what Carmelite spirituality helps us to achieve. This, too, is the purpose of the priesthood: the transformation in holiness of God’s people, which confirms them in their identity as a holy and priestly people.
In this issue, therefore, Mount Carmel reflects on the priesthood: an institution which is not just at the core of Christian identity but, in a particular way, at the heart of Carmelite identity. The essence of the Christian priesthood derives from the identity and work of Christ. Christ the priest is the eternal Son who is eternally oriented towards the Father in the bond of love which unites them. This is what the opening of the Gospel of John testifies to, with the magisterial declaration: ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν (ho Logos en pròs tòn Theón) – that is, the Word was towards God (cf. Jn 1:1). This orientation and stance characterised Jesus’ entire life and mission and is perfectly captured in his High Priestly Prayer in John 17, that great intercessory prayer which Jesus makes for the Church before returning to the Father, having accomplished his task in the world (cf. Jn 17:11, 4). Indeed, while Jesus was with his disciples, they would always see him rapt in prayer to the Father (cf. Mk 1:35; Lk 5:16; 11:1-13). And as Jesus himself would affirm: ‘Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son does also’ (Jn 5:19). Fr David Charters, in his very fine article in this issue, shares the same insight from John’s prologue and highlights for us where our priestly mission – both as priests and as a priestly people – ought to begin: to be ‘turned towards the Father’ in imitation of Jesus, for this is the secret of any fruitful apostolic activity.
Christ’s own work bears its ultimate fruitfulness in our salvation and sanctification. His priestly ministry finds its ultimate realisation in his sacrifice of atonement, of which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us in Chapters 9 to 10. Christ as our great priest, through his flawless sacrifice, has achieved our salvation even as the work of our sanctification continues. Indeed, as a priest forever in the Order of Melchizedek (cf. Hb 5:5-10), Jesus continues to exercise his priesthood by advocating for us in the presence of the Father (cf. Rm 8:34; Hb 9:24), in order to sanctify the Church, to make holy the people who have been called to become members of God’s family (cf. Eph 2:19; 5:25-27). This intercessory role is at the heart of priestly ministry and of the Carmelite vocation.
We see this clearly in the person of St Elijah, the archetype of Carmelite identity. Elijah is known to us, perhaps most of all, through his encounter with Baal’s prophets on Mount Carmel and his, Elijah’s, challenge to Israel to reorient their lives towards God. This is narrated in the eighteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings. It was a moment in Israel’s history when many had lost the sense of their primary vocation as a people holy to the Lord God (cf. Dt 7:6), but instead had turned their hearts away from God. On Mount Carmel, Elijah became for Israel a voice of witness. Carmelites, drawing inspiration from this man of prayer, can also be, for the Church today, voices that remind us of our primary vocation which is the same as that of Israel.
The events on Mount Carmel also reveal something of Elijah’s priestly identity, which invites us to reflection and surely proves an inspiration for priests. In the first place, Elijah finds his identity in his relationship with God, as his name makes plain: for ‘Elijah’ means ‘the Lord is my God’. Remaining in this relationship through a fervent spiritual life, that constantly seeks the face of the Lord in prayer, is essential for a faithful priestly ministry and for awakening a desire for holiness – intimacy with the divine – in those to whom priests minister. It goes without saying that it is in such daily experience of the loving and merciful gaze of God in prayer that the priest, conscious of his own weaknesses and failings, learns the true meaning of compassionate love. This experience enables him to extend to others in his ministry, in tenderness and empathy, the compassion and love which he himself has received.
Very significantly also, Elijah constantly affirms his identity by his orientation towards God: ‘As the Lord lives, before whom I stand…’ (cf. 1Kgs 17:1; 18:15; 19:11-13). It is worth noting that standing is a very common biblical posture of prayer (cf. 2Chr 20:5, 13; 1Sm 1:26; Jb 30:20; Mt 6:5; Mk 11:25; Lk 18:13). In fact, in ancient Near Eastern cultures, which provide a context for our understanding, the posture of standing is a position of privilege since it was those who were allowed audience with a king that would stand before him and make their requests (cf. Esth 5:2). Again, all of us who partake of the Eucharistic sacrifice know well that, despite our failings, God in his love continues to invite us to come into the divine presence. And for this we give thanks, which is the very meaning of ‘Eucharist’.
There is also something to learn from the episode on Mount Carmel in that it points to Christ’s priestly ministry. After the prophets of Baal have failed the contest – when no fire descends on their sacrifice, though they have called on Baal for hours – Elijah takes his stance before the Living God. First, we are told that he prepared the altar of the Lord. Then, as if reminding his audience, the author of the First Book of Kings notes that it was about the same time – that is, early evening – when the usual Temple sacrifice of a lamb without blemish, together with bread and wine (cf. Ex 29:38-42; Nb 28:3-4; 2Chr 13:11; Ez 9:4; Ps 140/141:2), is offered by the Temple priests that Elijah offers his prayers to the God of Israel and then performs the sacrifice. In more ways than one, this event on Mount Carmel points to the sacrifice of Christ, who is both priest and lamb of God (cf. Jn 1:29), on Mount Calvary. The narrative concludes with Elijah’s sacrifice being acceptable to God. He wins back the people to the faith of their ancestors, and he is the hero of the day.
It might offer us some consolation to know that, for all his zeal, Elijah had his moments of weakness, of self-doubt, and indeed of fear for his life (cf. 1Kgs 19:1-4). However, he found support through those whom God placed on his path, and so was able to continue on his mission. This highlights for us the need priests have today for support in their vocation. St Thérèse of Lisieux was acutely aware of this. She saw priests as ‘weak and fragile men’ and, echoing St Teresa of Avila (cf. WP 1:2; 3:2-6), she identified the Carmelite vocation as sharing profoundly in their ministry through a life dedicated to upholding the ministry of priests in prayer before the Father. ‘How beautiful,’ she exclaims, ‘is the vocation…which has as its aim the preservation of the salt [cf. Mt 5:13] destined for souls! This is Carmel’s vocation since the sole purpose of our prayers and sacrifices is to be the apostle of the apostles. We are to pray for them while they are preaching to souls through their words and especially their example.’
The present crisis in the Church accentuates this need for a prayerful support for priests, all the more. Priests need our prayer. In praying for priests, we as Christians and as Carmelites exercise our priestly vocation – both as priests, and as a priestly people – and so live according to our truest orientation. The urgency of this need moves me to invite you, our loyal readers, to join us in the campaign to put this issue of Mount Carmel in the hands of as many priests as possible. It might require mentioning this issue to priest friends or indeed giving it as a gift to a priest or priests you may know. It will be our modest way of providing what one reader has referred to as ‘the gourmet food of Carmelite spirituality’, so as to fortify priests in their ministry and enable them to assuage the spiritual hunger of our times.
Some of the articles in the present issue reflect on how Carmelite spirituality enhances priestly ministry. Two in particular are both from new contributors: Juliette Bordes and Baptiste of the Assumption. Juliette reflects on how, in her experience, the Carmelite contemplative life gives depth to the priesthood. She sees this playing out in John of the Cross’s poetry, which was a reflection of his interior life, as well as in the ministry of many Carmelite priests with whom she is acquainted, especially with regard to their ministry of enlightening souls and awakening them to spiritual life. Baptiste sees in Blessed Francisco Palau the perfect integration of the priestly and the religious life. The mystical space which Carmel offers made this possible for Blessed Francisco. This space allowed for the deepening encounter with the divine to happen, thus enabling his priestly life, expressed both liturgically and sacramentally in the Eucharistic sacrifice, to flourish.
In this issue also, we celebrate the priestly ministry of some of our Carmelite friars of the Anglo-Irish Province and salute their continued dedication to the call. Annetta Maguire shares her experience working with them at our Avila Carmelite Centre in Dublin. We also remember especially, with much fondness, our beloved Fr Peter Cryan who went to his eternal reward this time last year. We present once again his insights into parish ministry from a Carmelite perspective. These contributions and more, as you will discover, make this a very meaty issue indeed.
We have chosen for the cover of this issue a stained-glass window of Elijah. It depicts the prophet holding in his left hand two tablets upon which are written the Ten Commandments. These were to be a guide in the way of holiness for the people of Israel. Elijah, in this depiction, is the prophet who reminds Israel of their covenant with God and, through this covenant, of their identity as a holy people consecrated to God. His right hand is raised, giving a priestly blessing. He seems totally un-self-conscious as he stands oriented and gazing towards the light that illumines his face. Indeed, this image of Elijah captures this definition of prayer by Edith Stein: ‘Prayer is looking up into the face of the Eternal.’
I began by noting that in the light of the ‘dark night’, which the Church is passing through at this time, only Christ by his risen power can answer the challenge of this hour – and he is. Paradoxically, I should add, the present hour of challenge is also, at the same time, an opportune hour when the love of Christ compels us to rediscover our identity as a priestly people, a holy people. In God’s providence, the Carmelite tradition offers us, in the person of Elijah, a figure of inspiration whom we find at the origins of our Order. This going back to our origins, to find inspiration once again for fidelity to our identity, is already suggested by our being called Discalced Carmelites. No doubt, the word ‘discalced’ suggests ‘not wearing shoes’. This practice of walking barefoot was a common symbol of the Carmelite reform movement within the Church of the sixteenth century. However, the meaning of the symbolism goes further than any external expression. To be without shoes is to have direct contact with the earth, the ground. It is to be grounded. We are thus invited to reground ourselves in the truth of our identity as persons oriented towards the Living God, like Elijah, and to reclaim our authentic way of being in the world as a holy and priestly people to the praise of God’s glory (cf. Eph 1:6).
This, I believe, will be Carmel’s contribution to the Church today, as we strive towards holiness of life, sharing in the brokenness of our world while reaching out in tenderness and compassion to fellow travellers on the journey of life, in the sure hope that – despite the ‘scanty triumphs’ grace may win, the ‘broken vow’, the ‘frequent fall’ – the gentle light of the Risen Christ may continue to lead us through the darkness into the light of eternal glory which we celebrate each year at Easter.
Alexander of Mary Queen Beauty of Carmel, OCD
Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1996, p. 122.
Edith Stein, The Hidden Life, Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1992, p. 3.