Recently, while traveling in England, I was offered a rare and privileged opportunity. A former student of mine arranged for me to meet with Ruth Burrows, the Carmelite spiritual writer. A certain mystique surrounds Ruth Burrows. First of all, although she is one of the foremost spiritual authors of our time, very few people know her real name or know where precisely she lives. Ruth Burrows is her pen name.
What is known about her is that she is a Carmelite nun, living somewhere in England. In her books, she is most careful to disguise places, dates and names. Nowhere do you see on the covers or dust jackets of her books particulars regarding her person, age, place of residence, involvements, and so on. She prefers, for many reasons, a certain anonymity. She is a Carmelite, trying to live the hidden life of Christ. More importantly, there is a mystique about her because she is, in some circles, much to her own chagrin, regarded as a mystical writer. In our age, that kind of insinuation creates its own mystique, usually a false and harmful one. Burrows, herself, rejects the label “mystic,” especially as the word is commonly understood. However, because of the nature of some of her writings, that title is destined to plague her. She does deserve some extraordinary label since her writings are, in fact, exceptional. She is one of the great, and deep, spiritual writers of our time. She is the author of more than a half dozen books, but is best known for three of them: Her autobiography, Before the Living God, which, perhaps more so even than Merton’s, Seven Storey Mountain, traces the struggles of a soul to come to single-mindedness in Christ; her Guidelines for Mystical Prayer, which gives a novel and systematic outline of the spiritual life; and her recent, Ascent to Love, which is the best commentary in English on John of the Cross.
By way of introducing you to her, I offer you here a small smorgasbord of quotes from her:
On anger and bitterness:
- “Bitterness is an infallible indication of selfishness.”
- “The heart of trouble is the craving for attention, to have one’s own way.
- “At the heart of anger lies the rebellion against what is truly human.”
On suffering and desolation:
- “In paschal suffering, we cling to God, in neurotic suffering we cling to ourselves. In clinging to God we experience Gethsemane, in clinging to ourselves we experience neurosis.”
- “Christianity must never be allowed to degenerate into ‘Cross-tianity.’ We must never make an ideology out of suffering. That is the constant temptation, to think ourselves superior or deep because we suffer. Everything that can be said of consolation applies equally to suffering. True religious experience erases all sense of being special and superior, even in the area of suffering.”
- “Suffering is not an infallible indication of growth, it can just as easily indicate neuroses. We must be careful not to cast a mystical garb over indigestion.”
On sloth and laziness:
- “I am slothful when I feel that the total demands and promises of God are not for me and therefore I do not hold myself responsible in failing to meet them.”
On pride and honesty:
- “I am shocked to see how little contrition, searing contrition, features in our living and dying. Only a saint can afford to die the death of a saint. The rest of us need to go out as sinners in our own eyes and in the eyes of our entourage, and our peace must come from trust in God’s goodness, not in the complacent but unexpressed assumption that I have lived for God.”
- “The way we worry about spiritual failures, our inability to pray, our distractions, our ugly thoughts, and the temptations we can’t get rid of…it’s not because God is defrauded, for he isn’t, it’s because we are not so beautiful as we would like to be.”
Given all this, it was with considerable nervousness that I ventured into the ungrilled parlor of a small monastery in rural England. What kind of person would I meet? A writer larger than her words? A spiritual figure more powerful than her books? None of these questions now seem important enough to reflect upon. I met a woman of about 60, whose face, person, and words reflect everything her books talk about: Faith in God; exceptional prophetic vision; humor; the choice for life; the difficulties and pain in that choice, a pain that is not neurotic but which steadies, warms, and matures the heart; the importance of the ordinary, of the hidden life of Jesus, of the martyrdom of obscurity where Christ is all in all.
There is something deeply easeful in her person and manner. I was soon very much at ease. Never did I open my briefcase with its carefully prepared interview sheet. We talked of many things, the church, religious life, John of the Cross, the Carmelite reform, her ideas as expressed in Guidelines, and of her novices (her real pride and joy). Her books are strong. Everywhere they stare death, desolation, and chaos boldly in the face. It was not surprising to me; therefore, that the person I met radiated all that is antithetical to death, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. Like her books, her person exudes consolation, hope, life and energy.
Reading Ruth Burrows, or meeting her, makes you realize more than ever that our Christian faith is far from dead. We are very much alive!