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Contemplative Dialogue

Contemplative Dialogue

Marists in Spain, 2016

Marists in Spain, 2016

Fr Greg Burke, a discalced Carmelite hailing from Sydney and the Congregation's newly elected Provincial, led our annual retreat in Adelaide from 26th December 2016 to 2nd January 2017.

Today's World

Greg began by inviting us to think about trust and how it is under threat. This comes from a philosophy of suspicion, initiated by Freud, Nietzsche and Marx.

In contrast, after Jesus heals the blind man (John 9), he responds with the words 'Lord I believe' - the man trusts.

The Christian story is about relationships, about love. These relationships rely on trust. Greg names four priorities for religious today:

1. The primacy of God

2. The priority of the heart

3. The centrality of community

4. Mission for today's world.

He observes there is a lack of trust in institutions today. As a result, our work becomes more personal, as members of communities, reconciling all things in Christ (Eph 1:3-14). For Greg, a sign of our encounter with God is if we have hope. Such hope enables us t o live positively.

St Teresa of Ávila

As Greg develops his thinking with us, it becomes increasingly clear that St Teresa of Ávila, who along with St John of the Cross established the Discalced Carmelites, inspires his life.

St Teresa of Ávila (Photo courtesy of The Tablet)

St Teresa of Ávila (Photo courtesy of The Tablet)

Teresa was born in 1515, in the early modern period, of covered up Jewish descent.  She grew up amidst much inequality, Anti-Semitic racism, as well as the effects of the Spanish Inquisition and the Reformation (1516). Teresa was professed a Carmelite sister in 1537. In 1554, aged 39, she begins to see the pain of Christ and reflects on her poor attempts at prayer and being a true religious. This is a breakthrough moment for her, where she realises God is seeking to break into her life.  She gains a liberating and empowering sense that the Lord really accepts and loves her as the person she is. This energises her life, impelling her to listen to the aspirations of young women and to found a new movement for them. (See Teresa's Book of her Life 9:1-3.)

Teresa decides she does not want to live in a world of rivalry, but in one of harmony with Jesus, in a community of equals. She sees the need to revitalise the Church and make a response to the Reformation. In 1562, Teresa founds the first convent of Discalced Carmelites in Ávila.  John of the Cross enters the Reform Movement in 1568.

Teresa continues to face the issues of racism, inequality and the status of women in church and society. She wants to bring unity to the Church after the Reformation. Her confessors encourage her to write her spiritual autobiography (her Life in 1565) and in 1577 she publishes The Interior Castle in which she sees the soul as the dwelling place of God.  In the centre of every person is a beautiful castle made of diamond with seven dwelling places, which she interprets as our journey of faith through seven stages, culminating in perfect union with God.

The Interior Castle

Being an anti-Platonist, Teresa believes there is no ladder to ascend to God because God has come down to live among us. Her book is a metaphor. All the walls of the castle are transparent. The light comes from Christ at the centre - the centre of our own hearts, where we encounter Him. Prayer and reflection bring us into the castle. There we work with God's grace to get our lives together.

The first three mansions are considered to involve ordinary prayer. In the first, we let go of things that are holding us back. In the second, we are more settled, recognising God's work in us. By the third mansion, we recognise God is taking control of us through our different experiences, good and bad.

The next four mansions are considered mystical, involving contemplative prayer.  The fourth is a place of calm and quiet where God increases His role. Profound transformation begins in the fifth mansion where God works with us in our 'cocoon' until we emerge as well formed 'butterflies'. Here the cross becomes more evident.

In the sixth mansion, the soul experiences intense experiences of delight and suffering. The Lord is reshaping us so we hear differently.  This process is about seeing with the eyes of Jesus, a tempestuous time of betrothal. The seventh mansion focuses on spiritual marriage, a place of calm, of mature Christian life, where the Spirit acts in us. Being anchored in God, we keep our peace, being integrated in ourselves, becoming midwives of the Holy Spirit.  We desire what God desires for our world and are ready to act in the everyday and local area and community in which we live.

Teresa gives us an invitation to live from our centres, allowing God's Spirit to work through us, letting God lead us. She sees God calling us to respond to those around us, cautioning us against building castles in the air.

Living our Spirituality

Having reflected on Teresa's seven step spiritual journey, culminating in perfect union with God, Greg makes application to our own lives.

He refers us to the recent document on the Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church. Here we read 'there is nothing greater than baptismal consecration' (N14). In other words, there is only one Christian Spirituality. Our religious vows are a specification of this baptismal consecration.

The founder of the Bose Monastic Community in Northern Italy reminds us that our lay religious brotherhood is God's gift and a humble reminder to the church of the essential elements we share.  Our baptism makes all in the church fundamentally equal, in common dignity without privileges or exemptions and in common rights and duties.  Our being brothers is more important than our hierarchical differences.  The church is called by Pope Francis to recover the realisation that we walk together ('synodality').

Consequently, we are encouraged to live our Christian lives as well as possible. To grow in ourselves, we need to know ourselves, our gifts, our limitations. We don't need to act out a role, we need only to be ourselves.  Greg quotes John of the Cross as saying 'Where there is no love, put love and you will find love' and Br Lawrence of the Resurrection, the Carmelite Brother who develops and writes of the Practice of the Presence of God, 'My time of business does not differ from my time of prayer'. When the Breath of Life rules our life, we come to life.

In Yves Congar's 'I believe in the Holy Spirit' (Vol I, pp 160-164) he makes reference to the 'three white things': 'the host, the Virgin Mary and the Pope' as Catholic substitutes for the Holy Spirit. Greg sees the need for an appropriation of an understanding of the work of the Spirit as helping us to live the fruits and gifts of the Spirit more fully in our sisterhood and brotherhood (e.g. for the Holy Spirit and Mary cf. Marialis Cultis, 26, 27).

When reflecting on the Spirit, Greg refers us to the following scripture passages: John 14:5-27, John 16:13-15 and Romans 8:9-11.

He describes the Spirit as the breath, life and dynamite of God. The mission of the Spirit is to bring communion to all creation. Through our receptivity, a Marian quality, we hear the Spirit both personally and in community. Sometimes we need conversations that are long enough for each to understand the other. Traditional feminine values like expressing emotions and using our imagination and intuition are valuable for strong men as well.

The Identity and Mission document reminds us that being brothers today is a story of grace.  We are called to hospitality as openness and acceptance of the other, the service of dialogue and gentle listening to seekers, the affirmation of the feminine in church and society, the protection of life and the integrity of creation. The wise use of new technologies can help us share our spiritualities (N37), bringing the Gospel of hope and healing to the young and disadvantaged of our time.

Greg encourages us to seek to understand what is happening in our lives, to recall that seeing is knowing, to prefer to be concerned with the other, while realising we are loved, to be drawn out by this love and to 'keep walking'.  He draws our attention to the four theological imperatives of Bernard Lonergan

1. Being attentive to experience

2. Being intelligent in understanding

3. Being reasonable in judgement

4. Being responsible in deciding.

We are also called to be-in-love, to be free of our individual or group biases, to live so we can be spontaneous in our compassionate response to the needs of others.  These imperatives suggest a way of living authentically, living the truth humbly and making good decisions step by step.   It is a positive spiral.  There is no need to make 'grand five year plans'. This enables us to be able to say 'yes' to every opportunity that comes our way. In this way, we are part of a great orchestra, which comes together when we are attuned, each in our own way, to the music of the Spirit.

Helpful references to Scripture here are John 15:9, John 13- and Matthew 8:1-6.

Greg invites us not to lecture to young people but to listen attentively to them.  We should not worry about the future, for the Lord holds us and the entire cosmos, in His hands (Julian of Norwich's image of the hazelnut). Meanwhile, we walk together with humble confidence in faith and hope and love. He concludes by referring to the beautiful words of St Teresa found in her prayer book after she died:

Let nothing disturb you

Let nothing frighten you

All things are passing

God never changes

Patience gains all things

Who has God lacks nothing

God alone suffices.


Br John McMahon in consultation with Fr Greg Burke

Feedback is welcome @johnrmcmahon or in the comments below



De Aviz, J. (2016). Identity and Mission of the Religious Brother in the Church. London, Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

Experiencing God in our Marist context

Experiencing God in our Marist context

Leading in a Marian Way

Leading in a Marian Way