Monday, September 19, 2016

Transcript: The Words We Speak and the Silences We Keep, Fr. Marc Foley, OCD

October I posted notes that I had taken from a talk by Fr. Marc Foley, OCD given at the OCDS National Convention in Milwaukee. Today I decided to transcribe the talk essentially word for word. It was time well spent.

Fr. Marc Foley, OCD
The Words We Speak and the Silences We Keep
2015 OCDS National Congress
Milwaukee, WI

It’s a bad sign when the speaker has to drink coffee to stay awake….

Martha symbolizes the active life, and Mary symbolizes the contemplative life.

(snores loudly)

(audience: laughter, applause)

Two years ago, when Don and Carolyn O’Meara suggested that I talk on Martha and Mary in Carmel, this age old classification, this time-honored distinction of two lifestyles came to my mind. The contemplative life usually identified with cloistered nuns and monks, and the active life referring to people who primarily work in the marketplace. I’m going to take this talk in a different direction.  I’m going to use Mary as a symbol of attentive listening, to what John of the Cross calls contemplation, which he defines as “an inflow of God into the soul which teaches us secretly and instructs us in the perfection of love” and John says growth in contemplation is a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God. Usually when we think of contemplation, we think of something we do in the chapel. But for the most part, it is something that happens during our daily life. Let me read a passage from A Story of a Soul:

“Jesus has no need for books or teachers to instruct our soul. He teaches without words. Never have I heard him speak but I feel that he is within me at each moment, guiding and inspiring me in what to say and do. And it isn’t most frequently during my hours of prayer that these inspirations are most abundant, but rather in the midst of my daily occupations.”

So when you think of contemplation, that is, God instructing us in the perfection of love, the most important place, as Therese says, is right in the midst of our daily occupations. If we are attentive to what God is saying within us, being a Mary, then as we go around our daily tasks, then we respond to what we hear. And this is Martha, the way I’m defining it in this talk, as a symbol of our response to God’s guiding presence.

In this talk, I’m going to focus on two forms of choice regarding the interchange between our attentiveness to God’s Spirit in the inner world and our response to our neighbor in the outer word Namely, the words we speak, and the silences that we keep. And I’m having this focus for two reasons. First, speaking and choosing to be silent really encompasses most of our life. At any moment of the day, we are either doing two things. We are either talking, or we are being silent. And therefore it constitutes a significant part of our response to God. What is it that regulates our speech and our silence?

Second, I would propose to you that listening to God’s voice and speaking what we hear is at the core of the interrelationship of the contemplative/apostolic dimension of our Carmelite vocation. When you made your promise as a Carmelite, you were asked the following question: “Do you wish to bind yourself more strictly to the Church in order to collaborate by your mission by means of contemplative prayer and apostolic activity?” In my own experience of talking to either individual Carmelites or groups, there’s often a problem… people are at a loss… what do you do to fulfill this obligation of apostolic activity? I think we need to re-image what is being said here. Often “apostolic activity” conjures up images of working in a parish, on a project, working in a soup kitchen, perhaps protesting some issue of injustice. And if you are called to do so, please do. But what I would like to propose to you this afternoon is that there is no activity more apostolic, more fruitful for the church, and more transformative in society, than when language is an expression of what we hear God instructing us to say. The answer to that question is literally on the tip of your tongue.

When there is a congruence between what we hear God saying inside of us and what we say, then in the words of St Teresa, “Martha and Mary never fail to work together, because one is an expression of the other.” When our speech is rooted in the indwelling presence of God, then the Word becomes flesh.

We find a (laughter, applause …. Coffee is delivered)

We find a symbol of the relationship between contemplation and apostolic activity in one of the gospels that the Order has chosen for the feast day of Holy Mother. “And the Samaritan woman said to Jesus, ‘Sir, you have no bucket and this well is deep.’ And Jesus responded, ‘But the water I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’”

The Greek word that is translated “well,” it refers to a cistern, something that is man-made, whereas the Greek word that is translated “spring” refers to an underground stream that arises out of the depths of the earth. When our words and silences arise from the spring of God’s indwelling presence, and not from our ego, God’s life flows out of ourselves, to others.

Or, in the alternate gospel for the feast of St. Teresa, Jesus says, “I am not the source of my words.” A central question regarding whether or not our life is both contemplative and apostolic is, what is the source of my words? Are they drawn up out of the cistern of my own ego? Or do they arise out of the well-spring of God’s Spirit?

The British psychoanalyst and theorist, D. W. Winnicott, once said that the most significant turning point in his professional career as a psychotherapist was the day that he no longer had a need to be clever for his clients. Once his mind was freed from his preoccupation and his self-absorption of trying to formulate the psychologically astute response, he could relax and have access to a wisdom not of his own making.

The difference that the source out of which our words arise is symbolized by an image from St. Teresa’s work the Meditations on the Song of Songs. She writes: "Martha and Mary never fail to work together when a soul is in this state of union. For in the active and seemingly exterior work, the soul is working interiorly. And when the active work arises from this interior root, they become lovely and very fragrant flowers, for they proceed from this tree of God's love and are done for Him without any self-interest. The fragrance from these flowers spreads for the benefit of many. It is a fragrance that lasts, not passing quickly, but having great effect. When the soul is working interiorly, that is, when we are attentive to what God is teaching us, there is a congruence between what we hear and what we say.

We have an example of this in The Last Conversations of St. Therese. St. Therese tells us that, as she lay dying, one day Mother Gonzaga came in to the infirmary and she noticed that someone had left both a door and a window open, which created a draft. Mother Gonzaga was very, very angry, and demanded that Therese tell her who was responsible. Therese knew it was the infirmarian, Sr. St. Stanislaus. Therese related to Pauline what happened inside of her as she was speaking, and this is what she says: “I told Mother Prioress the truth, but while I was speaking, there came to my mind a more charitable way of expressing it than the one I was going to use. I followed this inspiration and God rewarded me with great peace.” Therese’s choice to have her words formed by what came to her mind of God instructing her in the perfection of love may sound very insignificant to this world. But seen in the eyes of faith, is there anything more important, more apostolic, than charity, which is at the very heart of God, being born into this world?

In the Spiritual Canticle John of the Cross speaks of what he calls the threshold of the soul. Kinda that liminal space inside of us where he says the first movements towards sin and the first movements of inspiration come to our conscious mind. And contemplation is having a vigilance of standing at that threshold. And we have a choice. What will be born and not born into this world? And that’s the heart of the contemplative life which flows over into the apostolic life. If you are looking for significance in your life, if you are looking for what is the heart of Carmel, it is right at that inner crossroads where inner language and outer speech interconnect. But it’s hard to speak what God wants us to say and restrict what God doesn’t want us to say, because it comes in conflict with our pride, our envy, our anger, our animosities, our pettiness. But this is where detachment and purification comes in.

Fifteen years ago, after I had my first book published, two realities became very evident to me. The first is that God has given me a gift to write. The second is, I’m very, very egotistical. (laughter) As I continued to write, there was a battle between what God wanted me to say, and my desire to dazzle my readers with my brilliance. Yeah. I was actually thinking of selling sunglasses out of my book so that people, you know, so their eyes would, uh, you know...But honestly, I remember, and this is the height of arrogance, but for the first six months I actually looked at the New York Times book review to see whether my book was on that best seller list. (laughter) But in the last ten years, or the last fifteen years, I’ve come to realize that writing is a spiritual discipline. It is an aethetical practice of detachment. In the same vein, how hard it is to allow God to edit our speech. But how necessary it is  for both our spiritual purification and our apostolic fruitfulness.

What happens when the words that we speak and the silences that we keep proceed from the tree of God’s love? Well, to quote Teresa: “Their fragrance spreads to the benefit of many, a fragrance that lasts  and that has great effect. And I think this bears on a question that haunts all of us, the older we become: When I come to die, will it make any difference that I have ever lived? If our words proceed from a deep contemplative root, then the fragrance of our life spreads to the benefit of many, and it’s a fragrance that lasts and has great effect.

Isn’t one of the prayers that we pray at Night Prayer, that what we have done during the day may bear fruit for eternal life. This is what we’re talking about, folks.

I’d like to connect this passage from St. Teresa to one taken at the end of the Ascent of Mount Carmel which, although specifically John is talking about preachers, it can be applied to speaking in general.  He writes: “For the preacher to benefit people he should keep in mind that preaching is more a spiritual practice and not a vocal one.” Or, to paraphrase John, speaking is a spiritual practice, probably the most arduous practice that we can engage in in our lives. Speaking what God wants us to say is a spiritual practice which requires detachment as it comes in conflict with our fears, our egotism, our ambitions, our animosities, our tendencies to manipulate, our desires to please and to flatter other people. Again, St. Teresa says in her Meditation on the Song of Songs, “someone preaches a sermon with the intention of benefiting souls but he’s not so detached from human consideration that he doesn’t make some attempt to please, or to gain honor, or credit, or he had in his mind receiving an office of canon for having preached well.” Where are his words coming from? That deep well? Hmm… yes and no. Often it comes from one’s ego. The need to please, the fear to displease, the need to flatter, are motives that can strongly impact what we say and what we don't say. And the question is, who edits our speech. There’s a story about the ancient Greek philosopher Aristippus who, by means of flattery, was able to procure a very lucrative job with Dionysius the King of Sicily. And one day he’s walking down the street, and he sees, sitting on the roadside, the philosopher Diogenes eating a little bowl of lentils. So Aristippus says to him, “Let me offer you some worldly wisdom. If you would only learn to flatter the king, you would not have to live on lentils.” And Diogenes responds, “And if you would only learn to live on lentils, you would not have to flatter the king.” (laughter) “What do kings and lords matter to me?” writes St. Teresa, “if I don’t want their riches, or don’t care to please them?” It is our needs to please people or to flatter people that gives people power over us. And when there’s a detachment, I don't need them.

I would now like to shift our topic from the words that we speak to the silences that we keep. There are many areas that we…. this was tough to choose one… that we could consider regarding silence impacting our spiritual growth and also making our apostolic activity fruitful. But because of time constraints, I’d like to focus on one practice that St. Teresa mentions, and that’s in chapter 15 of The Way of Perfection. And it consists of being silent in the face of criticism. Now, Teresa however, before she gets into this practice, she says it has to be practiced with discretion, within the bounds of common sense. For example, she says that it should not be practiced if by not clarifying a situation, it would cause anger, or give scandal. Ok? So she gives different clarifications where this should not be used. And after making these clarifications or qualifications, Teresa writes of the transformative effect that results in being silent in the face of criticism, and this the first one she gives. “You will not desire to be held in esteem.” Think of that for a moment. We will be released from one of our greatest fears: what other people think of us. Teresa says this takes a long period of time. And she continues … this is an incredible passage here, and it takes you a while to kind of get into it. She says, “Time will be the witness to the benefit you will see in your soul. For one begins to obtain freedom and doesn’t care whether people say good or evil things of you, but rather thinks of what is being said as though it were another person’s affair. The situation is like this, that in which we have two people talking together, but not to you. And then you don’t care about answering. So it is here with the habit that has been acquired of not responding. It doesn’t seem they are speaking to you.” It’s almost as if, when you are detached from what people think of you, people are talking to you, and Teresa is saying, it’s a weird experience, it’s like you’re over here, watching this person talk to you. (laughter) Or, like you are in an audience and you’re seeing yourself up on a stage talking to another person. Now this is true detachment. It’s being present to what is being said, but not being enmeshed in one’s emotions, which make us overreact to what is being said. And we can therefore just simply respond. Take the situation where somebody is attacking you, and you’re standing there in silence, and after the person stops speaking, you simply say, “I really don’t know how to respond to that.” It’s not reacting; he says, “I don’t know what to say.” And you don’t have to engage into a conversation. This gets into the practice of a deep interior peace.

Now, John of the Cross describes a similar practice in his Councils: What to do when you are being chiseled by other people. He says “some people will chisel you by their words, telling you what you would rather not hear, others by their deeds, others by their very temperament, not loving you.” This is a reality. People chisel us, and it’s not going to change. Just take that for granted. Listen to John’s advice. “You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience being silent for the love of God.” Ultimately, this practice will bring us peace because the fruit of being patient and silent in the face of being chiseled is simply that we don’t overreact to being chiseled. It’s a way of being in a situation that’s not going to change.

A good question to ask oneself regarding any practice is this: If I don't practice being patient and silent for the love of God when I’m being chiseled, what will happen? St. John of the Cross gives us a very, very sobering answer. "They do not get along well with others!" (laughter) That is huge. People are our world. If we are always reacting every time that life chisels us, we become nuclear reactors, and people will not want to deal with us. I mean, this is real tragedy, that people won’t want to deal with you. You are always overreacting. So, it brings us peace, and also it connects us to others.

Finally I would like to say a word about the apostolic fruitfulness of Teresa’s practice of being silent in the face of being criticized, or being silent as we are being chiseled. St. Paul in chapter 12 in his letter to the Romans writes, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Never avenge yourselves but leave room for the wrath of God. If your enemy is hungry, feed them and if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their head." (laughter) Biblical scholar Fr Joseph Fitzmeyer says that this phrase “leave room for God’s wrath” can be translated “give an opportunity,” or what we might say “create enough psychic space in the person who is speaking to you that they can hear their own words.” If someone is saying something to you that is either mean or nasty, and you don't fire back, all they have is their own words echoing in their mind. And this provides an opportunity for the person to hear what they have said, and an opportunkity for God’s grace to be operative. And when this happens, the coals of burning shame are heaped upon the person’s head, and this can be a moment of revelation. This is an example of the apostolic fruitfulness of Teresa’s practice of being silent in the face of criticism or of being maligned in some way.

As Shakespeare puts it, the silence of pure innocence persuades when speaking fails.

If there’s one thing I would like all of us to take away from this talk, is whether we accept it or not, whether we like it or not, all of us are very powerful people. And words are perhaps the most powerful thing that we possess The first image of God that we have in the Scriptures is a God who creates by words. “And God said, and so it came into being.”  Likewise, when we speak, there are consequences. When we speak words of kindness and forgiveness, people are healed.And when we spew out words of hate and envy, people are wounded.

In regards to this, Edith Stein writes the following (in Vol 5 Essays on Women, The Problem of Women's Education, pp. 231-232): “When one has grasped the essential import of speech, one knows that it signifies a responsibility taken upon oneself, and that one must have reverence for words. Intentionally or not, the word always reveals the speaker’s soul. It is released from the soul’s innermost depths like a ripened fruit, and discloses the soul’s inner activity. An unrestrained verbal outburst betrays the soul’s seeking or raging. Thoughtless speech testifies to superficial dealings. And speech always has its repercussions on others souls. The word can enrich other souls, stimulate and guide them, or it can injure them, and cause them to retreat into themselves, and it can leave a deadly mark upon them.”

I’d like to end this talk with an image taken from Paradise Lost by John Milton. It’s taken from book four where Milton attempts to do something that is virtually impossible. He tries to describe to us who live in a fallen world, who has not known anything except a fallen world, what the world was like before the fall. And in one passage, Milton describes the rivers that arise out of the crystal pure spring located in the center of the garden. “There rose a fresh fountain that watered the garden and rolled on Oriental pearl and sands of gold with maisy error under pendant shades.” Error -- that’s e-r-r-o-r. And all of a sudden you’re shocked. He deliberately jars us with the word “error” which has connotations of offense and violation and sin. In paradise? What’s he trying to do? Well, Milton was the greatest Latinist of his day, and he often chose a word based on the original Latin meaning. And Milton scholars feel that this is what he is doing here. Before the word “error” took on any moral connotations, it simply meant to wander, what an innocent child would do.  Thus what Milton is saying is that paradise is a place where all language is innocent. Where all language is pure. It is unaffected by pride, envy, hate. Because all language arises from a crystal clear fount.

Think how different our world would be if all speech and all silences arose out of the inner dwelling place of God’s presence. Think of a world in which all of us are like Martha and Mary who never fail to work together, in which our active works arise from a deep, interior root. They become lovely and very fragrant flowers, for they proceed from the tree of God's love. And the fragrance from these flowers spreads for the benefit of many, a fragrance that lasts and has great effect.

Thank you.

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