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Angela Tilby: Carmelites shine light on way of Magi

05 January 2024

Sister Rachel Gregory

Sister Rachel Gregory

THE Epiphany depicts “the wise” of the nations of the East bringing their gifts to the infant Christ. The Magi stand for the near-universal hope that, after this life, we may enjoy “the fruition of thy glorious godhead”, as the Prayer Book collect puts it.

Shortly before Christmas, I heard of the death of “Ruth Burrows”, a Carmelite nun of Quidenham, in Suffolk, whose real name was Sister Rachel Gregory. At the age of 18, she turned down a university place to enter monastic life, later becoming the Prioress of Quidenham, and seeing her community through many changes while writing about prayer.

I remember coming across Before the Living God in the 1970s, and finding it unspeakably negative and unappealing, because of her insistence that the spiritual path involved a relentless assault on the ego and its desires. We were made for transcendence, for nothing less than union with the living God, she argued.

In her other writings, Burrows speaks of childhood unhappiness, and a tendency to depression and anxiety. Her life, both inside and beyond the community, was a struggle, and it took her years to embrace the spiritual poverty to which she felt called. None of this prevented her functioning well: she was a gifted and much-respected leader, who made changes to the life of Carmel which were humanising and informed by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

Many years later, I came across her writing again, and suddenly, much to my surprise, what I had written off as negative began to grip me in a new way. Writing of the Carmelite St John of the Cross, she insisted that his message was not just one way among many. The simple truth of our being, which he expounded, is that we are “for” and “to” and “in” God’s infinite mystery. For her, the Carmelite way of life was “nothing other than a living out in a stark manner what is the very essence of human vocation”.

She suggests that we are misguided if we seek to avoid suffering, or if we cling too closely to our achievements, or even our sense of self-worth. I used to think that she was advocating self-hatred; but I now see that she was commending a quality of detachment which is hard for us 21st-century Christians to embrace, although it makes sense to anyone who has known pain or unfulfilment.

If we really are “for” and “to” and “in” God’s mystery, we could begin with the Magi’s embracing the poverty of Christ. In reality, we cannot hang on to anything. The human life-cycle takes us from the vulnerability of birth to our inevitable death. I suspect that we have understood the message of the Carmelite saints — John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, and Térèse of Lisieux — when their teaching shifts from being terrifyingly austere to being blindingly obvious.

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