Nothing, nothing, nothing...

Today, feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, I've been thinking about what little I know of Carmelite spirituality. My first introduction came about twenty years ago, courtesy of the writing of Ruth Burrows. I can't say I understood a great deal of what she wrote, but what I did understand helped me a lot. The prayer she often described was stark and austere, a stripped-down grappling and searching for God in a darkness whose only light was blind faith. Well, I had been struggling for some time with prayer that was dark, empty and devoid of nice feelings, so her searing, comfortless descriptions were actually very consoling!

Ruth led me to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. The illustration for his Ascent of Mount Carmel showed a mountain, lots of barely comprehensible phrases about all and nothing, and then, at the top of the mountain: nothing, nothing, nothing, even on the mountain, nothing. Those words, barely understood, also had a strong familiarity about them, instantly taking me back to an event which happened when I was twenty-three and God was nowhere near being part of my conscious landscape.

John Osley ©CCW
I was with my friend in North Wales. I remember we visited the stark majestic beauty of Snowdonia, and the lush green beauty of Betws y Coed. And somewhere in among all that, we drove across the Denbigh Moors, which even the Countryside Council for Wales describes as "bleak" and "visually striking". But at the time I didn't know that; it was simply a means of getting from one beauty spot to another. We stopped the car and got out to scan the horizon for a good view of the ruins of a haunted house. I scrambled up a bank and stood there, a strong wind slicing through my cotton shirt and tugging at my hair. I gazed upon mile after barren mile of... nothing. Definitely bleak, stark and desolate... no beauty, and yet, it was strangely beautiful, precisely because of its starkness and bleakness. That rolling expanse of nothingness, combined with the wind whistling through me, was so powerfully exhilarating, so breathtaking, so startlingly beautiful, that I can still remember it well, even though I struggle to describe it adequately.

Nothing, nothing, nothing... and yet, for a moment, it was everything.

I have no idea how much any of this has to do with Carmelite spirituality. It certainly bears little resemblance to Elijah's "gentle breeze". But I do know John of the Cross was the catalyst for bringing that experience back into sharp focus, enabling me to see it as an experience of the divine, a part of my journey with God, even before I knew that was what it was - or even that I was on a journey. As John himself wrote: To come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way in which you know not. I know now that God was at work in me very powerfully, even at a time when I "knew not".

Happy feast to all Carmelites, and especially to all Carmelite authors; and indeed to everyone who - knowingly or not - sheds some light on another's path.

I came into the unknown
and stayed there unknowing
rising beyond all science...

(John of the Cross)


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