The following was a sermon preached by Fr. Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, O.D.C. on the occasion of the Final Profession of a Carmelite nun, 6th August 1958. Father O’Donoghue was professor of Ethics at Maynooth before becoming a Carmelite. At the time of this sermon he was attached to the Abbey, Loughrea, Co. Galway.
Many of the saints speak of God’s thirst for our love. St. John of the Cross tells us that, however greatly the soul desires union with God, God’s desire for this union is still greater. St. Thérèse of Lisieux does not hesitate to say that God has need of our love. “He is so parched that He awaits a drop of water from us to refresh Him” (Letter LXXXVI).
Now this Divine need or thirst is surely a most extraordinary and mysterious thing. For God is absolutely sufficient to himself; he lacks nothing; he has need of nothing; in the Trinity of Divine Persons there is no loneliness, no desire for other company. If none of us ever existed, God would still be perfectly himself, perfectly complete, perfectly happy. In the forty-ninth Psalm the Holy Spirit says to the Jews who thought they were giving something to God by their sacrifices: “I do not need your calves and goats For all the beasts of the woods are mine. I know all the fowls of the air; and with me is all the beauty of the field.” What can such a poor creature as man give to the creator of the vast universe, the millions of starry worlds, the innumerable multitude of angelic spirits, any one of whom could destroy the whole fabric of this world.
And yet there is one thing that God seems to need, one thing that he thirsts for. That one thing infinitely desired is the love of our hearts. In the forty-ninth Psalm which I have just quoted the Holy Spirit continues: “Offer to God the sacrifice of praise : and pay thy vows to the Most High.” The sacrifice of praise is a loving communication of our hearts with the heart of God.
God desires our hearts, not because of some lack in himself, but rather because of the abundance of his love and goodness. Our need calls out to his abundance, and his abundance calls out to our need. He is like a loving father who has worked all day and comes home laden with gifts for his children. All the father needs of the children is that they accept his gifts, and if they do not accept these gifts he is very sad. If the children prefer their own silly inventions to the good gifts he brings them the father’s heart is indeed hurt, and the more he loves his children the more hurt he is.
God is indeed a bringer of gifts, and we, his children, are constantly being filled with good things. We are constantly loaded down by the abundance of his goodness. There is no limit to these gifts of his; the more of them we receive the more he is prepared to give. All that he asks of us is that we open our hearts and minds to receive this abundance, that we establish a loving communication with his Heart, a communication of giving and receiving. Our giving consists in a response, a disposition to receive — nothing more.
What are these gifts which God so desires to give us? They are the virtues by which the soul is made beautiful, so beautiful that it becomes a mirror of God himself. They are such wonderful qualities as humility, gentleness, meekness, strength of soul, truthfulness, loyalty, generosity. Above all God desires to give us the gift of charity, which is his own visage and countenance.
But alas, they are few who appreciate and accept these gifts. For these gifts cannot be received as long as our hearts are set on the things of this world, as long as selfishness reigns within us. We are like children who prefer to play with their miserable toys while their father begs them to come to him to be filled with the most rare and delicate gifts. It seems a hard and bitter thing to turn from self-love and worldly desires, yet this we must do if we are to open our hearts to this sweet and wonderful charity of Christ. And the more of the gifts of God we receive the more we must die to ourselves, and the more deeply we must suffer in this death.
Now the glory of the religious vocation is that it is a full and unconditional response to God’s love. And the sorrow of the religious vocation is that this response involves death to the natural self.
To glory is the essential and final thing, and the sorrow is only a preparation for it. Let us look first at the sorrow that we may understand the glory more fully.
It is commonly thought that the woman who enters a convent is entering a haven of peace, a sanctuary where one hears only faint echoes of life’s conflicts and difficulties. The priest-poet, Father Gerald Manly Hopkins, expressed this thought very strikingly in his verses on the occasion of a nun taking the veil:
I have desired to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the haven dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.
This is very beautiful and it has some truth in it, for the nun who takes the veil has had to endure many storms before arriving at the day of her final espousals of the Word made Flesh. But she will assure you that it was after she had entered the cloister that she had to endure the greatest storms, storms so great that at times it seemed all was lost. It is rare to find a religious who has not at some time felt the temptation to give up and return to the world, not because of the attraction of the world but because of the difficulties of the ascent to God. The time comes when even the strongest will cry out that they can bear no more, as did St. Teresa, as did St. John of the Cross, as did Our Lord himself when he begged that the chalice might pass from him. All that remains is the sheer will to hold on, and at time even this seems to have failed. And the more greatly God enriches the soul the more greatly must it suffer.
The young woman who enters the cloister does not leave the stormy sea for a quiet haven. Rather may her soul be compared with the boat that leaves harbour for the open sea, for unknown and perilous waters. Better still she is like the soldier who chooses to go into the thick of the battle. “You must be strong men,” St. Teresa, Mother of Carmel, used say to her nuns. It is outside the cloister, not within it, that you will find the timid ones. For within a great battle rages, not against flesh and blood, but against Principalities and Powers, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
The religious rule is austere and has many sharp edges, and life in a community involves deep suffering, especially for those who are sensitive. But the sorrow of the contemplative life is deeper than that. The essential sorrow of the contemplative life arises from the encounter of the Divine and human, an encounter almost intolerable at times for poor human nature. St. John of the Cross compares this process to the way in which fire takes hold of a log of wood, burning out all impurities until the log is changed into a clean glowing coal. What is most special to the religious vocation is the frank recognition of the demands of the fire of Divine Love. In rediscovering this St. Thérèse of Lisieux was simply renewing the true life of Carmel. The Carmelite nun is dedicated to love, a victim of love. That is her sorrow, and that is her great glory.
The glory of the consecrated religious life, I have said, is that it is a full and unconditional response to God’s love. There is in the immeasurable thirst to possess each human soul, to adorn it with all grace and virtue, to make of it a perfect mirror of the Divine. The true religious responds fully and unconditionally to this desire. She senses this Divine thirst and she resolves to slake it by giving intercession and sacrifices. A nun is the mother of souls, the mother of sinners, especially. Nobody loves the sinner more than she does, for her love is truly a mother’s love. She more than anyone else realizes how the heart of Christ thirsts for souls; she understands this with the sure instinct of a lover. Knowing the heart of her beloved she knows that immeasurable thirst in it which expressed itself so piercingly on Calvary. She knows that this love addresses itself in the first place and all the time to her own heart, and she is ready to suffer all in order to respond to that love. How foolish are those worldly people who think that a nun, especially a contemplative nun, has made the sacrifice of all the affections of heart when in truth it is she alone who knows or can know the full glory of love. The love that the world speaks of is at the best a pale imitation or at worst a dreadful caricature of that bright and burning glory that possesses the heart of the spouse of Christ.
Love is at once giving and receiving, for it is a living dialogue and communication of heart to heart. To love God truly we must be generous in giving, making the gift of all we have and all we are. It is well to understand this, but we must also understand that love is receiving, that is in fact more a matter of receiving than giving. To respond fully to the love of God is to be ready to receive more and more of the Divine abundance. Many souls that are generous in giving are yet not apt in receiving, for this demands great humility and simplicity. It demands courage too, for God’s thirst to possess the soul makes very great demands on it. God’s love is not partial or limited like human love; it does not stop short at any point for it seeks to transform the soul entirely into the Divine image.
What a wonderful thing it is, that we, for all our poverty and weakness are called to the most intimate union of heart with God. What glory there is in this love by which we shall be one day transfigured as Jesus was on Mount Thabor when his face did shine as the sun and His garments became white as snow. For it is by love that He was transfigured, by that same love which drew him on towards Calvary. It was of this supreme act of love that he spoke conversing with Moses and Elias. For it is the glory of Calvary that shone through on Thabor.
I have said that in re-discovering love St. Thérèse of Lisieux was simply re-discovering the true vocation of the Carmelite, and indeed of all religious, the vocation envisaged by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. “In the heart of the Church, my mother, I shall be love.” These words express with inspired accuracy the place of the Carmelite nun in the Church of Christ. Every true religious will do all in her power to slake the Divine thirst, to receive of that Divine abundance that today more than ever before is poured into men’s hearts and calls out in agony for a response. It is in relation to this Divine thirst that the act of Oblation to Merciful Love must be understood. The whole Act centres around the phrase — “Let the floods of infinite tenderness pent up within you flow into my soul.” This was the vision which Thérèse saw in her early days; this was the desire that sustained her whole life — that there is in the Heart of Jesus a veritable thirst of giving, and that we can each of us slake that thirst. God has need of us because of his own abundance and goodness and mercy.
A fervent religious responds to the Divine thirst, the Divine need. And in responding thus she brings down graces on many souls. For the Divine bounty cannot show itself unless man responds and accepts it. And because of the unity of the Mystical Body the full response of the Carmelite alone in her cell draws down graces on the whole world, as the heart nourishes and sustains the whole body. For the “floods of infinite tenderness” that flow into her soul do not remain there but go forth in maternal generosity, and after the image of Mary’s mediation, to the whole world.