I think a wrong idea is around that stressing the resurrection means bypassing a great deal of human suffering, much that, in the cold light of day, brings us face to face with the pettiness, the sickening pettiness and futility of our human lot, the sordid pettiness of our own being, a suffering utterly lacking in nobility, grandeur.
This is false. Jesus delivered us from suffering in the sense that he has given it meaning, not in the sense that it is no longer there. Dying will feel like dying and yet it won’t be real dying because Jesus has destroyed death. So suffering feels like suffering and nothing else. To live in the risen life of Jesus is to accept the human lot in all its bitterness as he did, and surrender to the Father in it and through it. It does not mean trying to live in a state of emotional elation which takes the edge off human suffering.
Ruth Burrows, Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, 5-6
Reflection – OK, on to something completely different! I’ve had quite enough engaging in controversy for a little while. When I was 20 years old, I was entering what proved to be the most wretchedly unhappy year of my life. I had just spent my first summer at Madonna House, and had returned to university to finish my undergraduate degree.
I was living alone, in a city where I knew nobody, in a remote corner of the city (it was an hour by bus to the nearest Catholic church). In the face of this difficult situation—it ended up being the year that confirmed for me my absolute need for Christian community—I knew I at least needed some good spiritual reading.
Off I went to the Mustard Seed, the local source of good Catholic reading. And among the few books I bought was this little gem: Ruth Burrows’ Guidelines for Mystical Prayer. As it turned out, in my utter misery of loneliness and isolation that year I read, re-read, re-re-read, and practically committed to memory this book, and it has proved to be one of the seminal graces, the foundational texts of my own spiritual life. And so I would like to spend this next week sharing some of Burrows’ insights with you all, since this book helped me so much at such a young age.
It saved me from a lot of false starts, blind alleys and mistaken ideas about the spiritual life: that is probably the book’s great quality. This text, for example, really clarifies what it means to be an ‘Easter people,’ a people who live lives focused on the Resurrection of Christ and its utterly central place in human history and human meaning.
We think it means being on a permanent emotional high, of being ‘cheerful’ all the time, bubbly and smiley and happity-clappity. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice!’ Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, so you better never feel a little sad, better never be ‘down’, or else you’re betraying the Resurrection!
Burrows to the rescue! She herself, a Carmelite nun, has suffered all her life from depression, yet what emerges from her writings is luminous faith and radiant joy. But it is a joy not confined to the shallows of emotional excitement which comes and goes and comes again… and goes again. Emotion is all well and good; so is the tide; but you cannot build your house on the tide, and you cannot build your life on your emotions.
Instead of emotion, we have Jesus to build our life on. And this is the great theme of all Burrows’ writings. It is all about Jesus, about nothing except Jesus, and there is no ground for joy, for hope, for faith, for prayer, for holiness but Jesus.
And in Jesus, everything is not so much changed—as she says, death feels like death, suffering feels like suffering—but receives a new meaning. Suffering and death without Jesus carry within themselves a terrible futility, an end to hope and to all human striving. But in Jesus, something new happens, even as our emotions register nothing, perhaps, of this change. And so it all comes down to acceptance, surrender, obedience, detachment from our will and embrace of God’s will.
But this surrender and detachment is not a mere passive fatalism, a mere yielding to the inevitable ravages of time and matter, a mere sinking into the grave because there is nothing else for us. It is a falling into the arms of the Father. It is a deep choice to believe that His love is real, His providence is good, and that His Son has opened a door at the far extremes of suffering and death that leads us into a new and glorious life, and that we have only to cling to Him to get through that door. And in the meantime, all of life is subtly changed, illuminated, transformed, turned bit by bit into love, peace, and joy by this clinging and this surrender.
I am so glad I read this book when I was 20 years old. It helped me then and 27 years later, it’s still helping me. And I’m glad to share this treasure with all of you over this next week or so.