A few days ago, I read this on the blog As I Went Walking:
“In the South, they must conserve their energy, moving slower so they are not worn out by the long, hot days.”
Christina, the author, was sharing an account of her trip to the Southern part of the United States, but something about it resonated deeply and I soon realized why. Rather than the South, it seemed she was describing my recent week-long visit to a Carmelite monastery here in my home state of North Dakota.
This was my very first impression of Carmel:
You have to love a place that greets you with a heart-shaped floral “hello.”
Beyond that, the first evidence of the interior life of Carmel was shown to me at the 7 a.m. Mass the next morning. The whole of the Mass unfolded much more deliberately, much more slowly than what I’m accustomed to. At first it felt strange, but it wasn’t long before I was following suit and enjoying the revised pace.
I can’t help but smile at myself like a knowing mother does her child for being initially stubborn about having to rise a little earlier than I would have chosen to attend daily Mass. Yes, I like to take my mornings slow, but I was amazed at how this early infusion of grace carried me through the first day there…and the next…and the next.
The first morning, I sat in the pew for quite a while after Mass was over. I was unable to move — like in a dream when someone is chasing you, only I wasn’t afraid at all. I just couldn’t get up. Some unseen force was holding me there, though not against my will. It knew, and I sensed, too, that I needed a little more filling-up before I could go about tackling the work that had brought me there.
Throughout the week, I found myself smiling a lot, whispering “Thank you, God” a lot, and after three days of silence, talking to myself a lot. In that, I discovered that I don’t mind myself for company.
Each day when the chapel bell would indicate it was time for Mass or for one of the two hot meals that had been prepared, I would start off from the guest house down this road to the main monastery building.
Since it was such a short distance, I could take my time. No one would be waiting for me to sit down to eat; I would eat alone. In the quiet.
In the distance on the way there, I could see the statue of Mary.
I would visit her several times before my visit was over, including the very last hour, to say goodbye, but without words. Only a gaze and a smile, which seemed to be returned in kind.
Experiencing the slow, richness of the Carmelite pace, I couldn’t help but make the comparison to the time I arrived in New York City by train from Princeton, NJ, where I was working as a summertime nanny. I’ll never forget the feeling of an immediately increased pace upon stepping foot on the streets of the city. I was struck by how the pace of a place can be so different, one location from another.
At Carmel, the pace is purposefully slow. There is no rush about things. Except, perhaps, the rush to rise at midnight for prayer, as the Sisters there do. They do so, I read, because night time is when most evil begins to stir. Their prayers begin, then, when evil is at its most active. I find it reassuring that the Sisters are just rising at the time I’m heading to bed. They’ve got the bases covered; their prayers are like a huge blanket that unfolds over the faithful at night.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I didn’t pray with words as much as I thought I might while at Carmel of Mary. Instead, each moment felt like a prayer. I was in constant communion with God, who seemed to be holding me up, moving me along my path, leading me further into my work and the life of Carmel.
One of the writers whose work I studied while there — St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross — once said that we must quiet ourselves to hear the still, small voice inside us. It was at Carmel that I realized, perhaps for the first time, that God isn’t something we look for outside of ourselves. God is within. Rather than seeking Him in some exterior place, the most certain way to find Him is to hush the distractions around us and listen..to that still, small voice.
A week after my departure, I found myself in a hot tub at the Y trying to work out the kinks in my strained back and neck. Yes, real life has returned. But in that whirlpool, I heard it again — the quiet voice that deserves my attention.
I’m newly convicted that we mothers in particular must search for that voice within us and do what we can to move away from the distractions, even for a few precious moments each day. I can’t stay at Carmel permanently — I have a family who needs me. But I can keep looking for Carmel — in fact it’s imperative that I do — wherever I find myself.
Q4U: What are the most surprising places you’ve found your version of “Carmel” this past week?