Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Review: St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross on the Beatitudes

Thomas M. Reid, the current president of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Carmelite Community which meets at Assumption Grotto on First Saturdays, was the formation director for many years.  In fact, he is one of several co-founders of our community having been a secular Carmelite long before coming to the parish. Grotto's pastor, Fr. Eduard Perrone, also an original member, serves as the chaplain or spiritual director.  I joined the community in 2005. In fact, it is one of several factors that led me to the parish for the very first time on May 15, 2005, the Feast of Pentecost that year. I was pursuing spiritual direction given to me by my Franciscan novice mistress in February 1983 to find a spiritual director fluent in the works of St. John of the Cross, to which I had gravitated before leaving that community in Herzegovina due to illness.  That was not an easy task and I abandoned it after about a year of coming up empty.  Then one day, I contacted Mother Mary Elizabeth at the Carmelite Monastery in Clinton Township, who referred me to Fr. Perrone and the community at Assumption Grotto.  The rest is history.

Tom has been helpful in many ways over the years, even writing workbooks on the writings of St. John of the Cross.  His talks at our monthly formation meetings have enabled us to probe the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila much deeper.  A look at one of his well-read Carmelite books tells you something.  I happened to have my camera with me in 2009 and when I got a glimpse of one of his Carmelite books -- this one being the collected works of St. John of the Cross, I believe -- I asked to take pictures of it.  Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of one of the pages with notes on top of notes, on top of other notes. These tiny bundles of thoughts went in every white space that could be found on a given page. Tom never saw a need to replace his trusty old books, held together with rubber bands, with newer, crisp versions.  I think it could be summed up in my father's explanation as to why he hated it when my mother washed the coffee pot: "All the flavor buds go down the drain." Tom's disintegrating Carmelite books are full of flavor buds and gems to be mined.  In fact, I think we need to put them in a special library for future reference after he has gone to his reward.  Only the Good Lord knows what treasures we will find there. Click on the pics below to get a closer look at the book he had that day.

St. Teresa of Jesus & St. John of the Cross on The Beatitudes

With some word about who Tom Reid is above, I now begin my long over-due review of his book on the Beatitudes in the writings of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross - the mother and father of the Order of Discalced Carmelites.  Secular Carmelites were once called lay or third order Carmelites.  But, as Fr. Perrone's example shows, even a diocesan (secular) priest can become a secular Carmelite, the formal expression now used by the order.

Tom's targeted audience for this book is secular Carmelites because we are supposed to pay particular attention to the Beatitudes in our daily life.  However, it would be a significant mistake to limit the audience in such a way.  The Beatitudes is a book for any Catholic wanting to probe the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.

What Tom does is he first explores a particular Beatitude, then he breaks it down into two parts.  For example, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, is broken down by looking at the Kingdom of God, then looking at poverty in spirit.  What he does next could only be done by someone who has read the same works over and again over a period of many years, or in Tom's case, decades.  He pulls from each of the primary Carmelite works those things that pertain to the Beatitudes.  When he finishes the first one, then moves on to the second one and the process begins again, first finding relevant nuggets in each of Teresa's key works, followed by those of St. John of the Cross.  Throughout the book you are exploring certain themes or even words in the works of these saints.  As many times as I have read the Sermon on the Mount, I never peeled away the layers the way Tom has in his book, The Beatitudes.

One thing this achieves is to give us a very good orientation of the primary Carmelite works.  Even though I have read most of the books he excerpts from cover to cover, he really opened them up for me, as he has in his talks, and in his work books.

Here is one excerpt discussing poverty of spirit (pardon any typos or errors which may have occurred as I typed this part out).

We now turn to The Ascent of Mt. Carmel of St. John of the Cross to examine his views on the importance of poverty of spirit that will result in a soul gaining the Kingdom of God. We can easily translate this Beatitude into the language of St. John of the Cross. Poverty of spirit is the result that occurs in the soul that traverses the dark nights of the spiritual doctrine of this saint. The core of St. John's teachings concerns the dying of the soul to all the attachments it has to the world and it's attractions, the devil and his wiles, and most of all to the self defined as the center of the soul's consciousness and the object of its activities. As the soul progresses through each of the dark nights, of sense and spirit, active and passive, poverty of spirit increases. Each of these nights requires an increasingly painful separation from an attachment to creatures that is deeply embedded in the soul. Later in its journey, the soul will be required by God to detach itself from the spiritual satisfactions and the obstacles to union with God. They are obstacles because they are treated as ends in themselves, rather than means to the true end: union with God.  
These attachments are barriers to poverty of spirit because they bind the soul to practices and methods of approaching God that are contaminated with self-interest, and seek as their object something that is less than God. In this way, the soul tends to retain something for itself and its own delight, and therefore, poverty  of spirit is limited until these spiritual attachments are also surrendered and abandoned and no longer treated as ends (page 35). 

If you have never read any of the works of St. Teresa of Avila or of St. John of the Cross, this book may get you interested in reading them. For those who have read the great works, you will find your understanding blossoming in ways unexpected.

How to get the The Beatitudes and other Carmelite works:

For those not local, Tom's books are sold through Little Flower Press.  Here is the page for St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross on The Beatitudes. Once again, while it is targeted to secular Carmelites, this treasure is useful for any Catholic wanting to understand the Beatitudes or the works of the great Carmelite reformers.  They are not available at Amazon, nor is there an e-version of the book at this time.  Some pretty high volume would be needed for these things and perhaps your interest could help in this regard.

Getting started in the great Carmelite works, I think it is best to begin with the Way of Perfection by Teresa of Avila.  It is in the Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, or in a stand alone version.  Likewise, I recommend the Collected Works of St. John of the Cross.  You will go back to them over and again as you grow in spirituality. Carmelites and non-Carmelites alike learn from these Doctors of the Church.  I prefer the translations by Kieran Kavanagh, OCD through ICS Publications.

Visit your local Catholic book store to help keep them in your neighborhood. Assumption Grotto's giftshop, which is open on Sundays after the 9:30 AM and Noon Masses, as well as on weekdays for about an hour after the 7:30 AM Mass should have these books, as well as Tom's book on The Beatitudes.  Just ask at the desk or inquire through direct message at the giftshop Facebook page.

If you don't have a local bookstore to support, or want to get the great Carmelite works online,  here are some of my suggestions.

From time to time I get email inquiries about life as a secular Carmelite.  To learn more about living in the world as a Secular Carmelite may want to consult the little booklet by the OCD Delegate to the OCDS, Fr. Aloysius Deeney, OCD: Welcome to the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites.  If you want to visit a secular Carmelite community, look at the OCDS Generalate page in Rome to see if there is one near you.  You may have to really click around, especially within the various US provinces, and not all of them are kept up to date.  I give that link because I have a global readership and there are communities in many countries. Not all of them have websites, and those that do don't necessarily keep them up to date.

For interesting news items I don't have time to blog on, check out my Twitter Feed: @TeDeumBlog

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The obedient are not held captive by Holy Mother Church;
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