Happy Carmelite Birthday to me!

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Well, it’s been a whole year since this picture was taken just moments after I had been received into Carmelite formation on 21st Feb 2015. For those of you new to the blog, I am not a nun! I am a secular (3rd order) Carmelite. We are ordinary men and women who live in the world, go to work, sometimes get married and raise families etc. The difference is that we all have the vocation of Carmelites – that is to say that we feel an unquenchable pull towards Carmel, towards the interior life with Christ.

There are 2 branches of Carmel today, the O’Carm’s which is the ancient observance, and the Discalced who were reformed by Teresa of Avila in the 1500’s. I am a Discalced Secular Carmelite.

A good friend of mine who was also a carmelite gave me a few words of advice on preparing to enter formation: “Hold on – you are about to experience the ride of your life!” I had no idea what she meant at the time. I do now 🙂

She wasn’t talking about some crazy lifestyle or mega exciting party season or other equally ‘exciting’ rubbish like that. No, she was talking about my interior life. You see, once you start taking steps into the interior life you very quickly realise how completely unprepared and totally inadequate you are. The more you learn about detachment, you realise how attached you are to everything. The closer you draw to God, you realise that your preconceived notions of Him are just ways of comforting yourself. My formation does not simply consist of following a syllabus of knowledge (although we do that too) but also is very much about observing our lived experience of Carmel. How is it affecting me? How am I changing? How is my relationship with Christ – and with those around me developing?

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There is nothing fluffy about Carmel. But without a shadow of a doubt I can tell you that it is home for me. The more I get to know the members of the Carmelite community – whether they be on earth or in heaven, I find myself being able to relate in a way I never thought possible. I spent so many years not knowing what this feeling was within me, and not being able to share it with anyone.

I always had this nagging feeling I should have become a nun. But being married and having 3 kids kinda ruled that one out!! And besides, I was happy being a wife and a mother. So you can imagine my amazement when I discovered 2 years ago that it was possible to belong to Carmel as a secular!

I think the highlights of my first year would be:

1. Beginning to grasp the notion that we cannot divorce our relationship with Christ, and our relationship with each other. I still have trouble putting this into practice btw!

2. Understanding what it means to be under the protection of Our Lady of Mount Carmel: I quite often forget to put God in the first place in my life – even when I ponder/contemplate things in my heart. I often ponder things from my own perspective, favouring my own wants and desires, rather than pondering them from God’s perspective as Mary did.

3. Through my carmelite connections I got to read a bidding prayer at the Vatican during the canonization Mass of Louis and Zelie Martin (parents of St Therese of Lisieux) and then chatted to their living relatives afterwards!

I love being a Carmelite! I am home, and I am happy. And I am lucky to be part of such an amazing family.

 

 

 

Silent retreat FAIL.

So I’ve just come back from my first Carmelite silent retreat. It was awesome.

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With 3 kids and a sick husband i could only commit to going for 24 hours so I was determined to make the most of it. Of course my alarm didn’t go off the morning i was going, so I arrived late and unfortunately i missed the first talk.

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When I did get there I suddenly realised that i had completely forgotten to reply to the original email so there for i had forgotten to book a room, and it seems they were fully booked.

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Thankfully, one of the other seculars was leaving that afternoon, so they allowed me to stay in her room. I apologised, and thanked her – in silence.

Actually the silence was exactly what i needed. I was tired from my stressful morning and 2 hour drive and so the first thing i did was to make a cup of tea and go and find a nice spot in the beautiful grounds to sit quietly on my own. Of course at this point it started raining.

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Never mind. There was some benches undercover, and the chapel was open 24/7. So i had a little explore round silently on my own.

After about an hour i started getting restless. An hour of silence is a complete luxury for me. In fact i would go as far as to say it is completely alien. I have 3 screaming kids and an unemployed husband. My home is NOT a quiet place. I’m just not used to it any more. I didn’t realise how noisy my life had become.

But the real issue was the fact that the silence was making me aware of all the internal noise going on within me. It was actually making me extremely uncomfortable. Ironically, at home, the constant screaming and shouting actually serves to distract me from what is going on inside me. But now i was in a situation where the silence was forcing me to confront the things inside. It was ugly. I didn’t want to admit a lot of stuff. I needed to find a distraction.

So i got my phone out and went on Facebook. In silence.

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When I had finally summed up enough courage to instruct my friends to block me for the next 24 hours because i was on silent retreat (because i have no will power AT ALL) I finally found myself alone. With God.

I couldn’t take it! I just COULDN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!!! So i started talking to myself. Out loud.

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Thankfully at this point it was time for the second talk which focused on Teresa of Avila and how she described our own personal relationship with God as something that is inseparable from our relationship within our own communities, and how we need great humility to be able to live this active/contemplative life of prayer. And even though the talk was excellent and hit exactly the right chord – this was pretty much the last straw for me.

I had to face the ugly fact that i had been using prayer as a distraction from my responsibilities as a wife and a mother. The truth is that i’m not particularly enjoying my vocation at the moment. It feels like i am completely trapped in a life of screaming kids and “conversations” about the fact that we have not had an income for 18 months and what the hell we are going to do about it.  My home feels like a prison. God is the jailer and my sentence is marriage and family (God forgive me for saying so…)

To admit the fact that i am physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted and heavily resenting my vocation is something i had been avoiding admitting to myself for a long, long time. Besides – when you are in the situation of constant noise and relentless activity, the exhaustion becomes, well, normal. It is only when faced with silence, real silence, that the external and internal distractions start to melt away and I find myself alone with God. This is Carmel.

“Ok.” I said out loud. “If i’m going to have to face this with You then I’m going to need a packet of Cigarettes.”

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“WHAT???!!!” I hear you say – “A Catholic mother of 3 smoking???!!! On retreat???!!!”  Yes, I’m afraid so. I spent most of the rest of the evening sitting outside in the rain smoking, and and polarising between being extremely angry with God, and begging Him for help. In fact I stayed out there so long into the night, I actually found myself locked out of the retreat centre. In the rain.

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So eventually they let me in and I went to my room to dry my tears and lay down in the silence – until the fire alarm went of at 1am and proceeded to “BLAH!BLAH!BLAH!” until 4am.

Awesome silent retreat. Awesome.

“Dear Louis and Zelie, please help me with my marriage.”

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When I heard the relics of Louis and Zelie Martin were coming to the UK I immediately knew I had to go visit them. Their youngest daughter – St Therese of Lisieux was the one who guided me into Carmel. She has become one of my best friends (yes – some of my best friends are actually dead 😉 ) and to be able to ‘meet’ her parents was a very special honour for me as a secular Carmelite. They had 9 children, 4 of whom tragically died in childhood. They were married for 19 years until Zelie died from breast cancer when little Therese was just 4 years old.

Their relics were on display at Portsmouth cathedral UK. Bishop Egan said Mass and gave a superb homily reminding us all that no man has the authority to change Christ’s teaching on marriage.

There was also time for quiet reflection. And I found myself praying the only prayer I could think of: “Please help me with my marriage…”

Next week Nick and I will have been married for 15 years. The last 18 months have been really, really hard. Nick was diagnosed with CFS when our 3rd child was just 4 months old, and has not been at work since then. We have no idea when or if he will recover. We do not have an income. I now take the kids on holiday on my own. I didn’t chose this and neither did he. I cannot stand to watch him suffer.

But it’s not all bad…

How many fathers do you know who get to spend everyday with their baby? How many fathers do you know who are their for their kids everyday when they get home from school, eat dinner together everyday, read bedtime stories everyday? (I must just add that as husband and wife, being together in close proximity 24/7 has its um… challenges – like refraining from killing each other 😉 )

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“Please help me with my marriage…” I would like to think that after 15 years of wife-ing, I was getting pretty good at it. But I’m afraid I still struggle with my vocation every single day. And so does he. It’s not always a bed of roses.

How it is possible for us to have got married age 20 with 1 days preparation, and then keep that marriage together through thick and thin in every possible scenario for 15 years I just don’t know. I can only put it down to the fact that Jesus is present in our sacrament of marriage. We have tried to split up a few times but we just couldn’t do it 🙂

On one occasion I remember desperately wanting to leave but wrestling with the fact that if I left, I would have to deny Christ – and I just couldn’t do it 🙂 In the end it wasn’t feelings towards my husband that kept me in my marriage, it wasn’t even the fact that I believe children need to grow up with their mother and father present, but it was the fact that Jesus had given His whole life for me on the cross, and now He was asking me to give my whole life for Him by staying obediently in my marriage vows. It was at that moment about 8 years ago that Christ became first place in my marriage.

Louis and Zelie were terrific examples of this. They had Christ in first place in their marriage from the very start. They obviously adored each other, but crucially they did not idolise each other. Christ came first.

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Gosh! What a lesson this is for us today! How many people idolise their spouse, putting them above God? Many, I would say. And it’s not fair, because when you put your spouse first (above God) you are burdening them with a role they can not possibly ever live up to. Your spouse will NEVER be able to fill that God shaped hole in your heart. And it is completely unrealistic and unfair to expect them to. And when you begin to realise that your spouse is not ‘fulfilling’ you like you would like then you actually begin to blame them for it! Crazy isn’t it?!

Personally I’m convinced that this is the reason that so many marriages are failing now. People are expecting their spouse to fulfil the parts of them that only God can fulfil.

By putting Christ first in their marriage, Louis and Zelie kept their marriage holy, and also set the example for their 5 surviving daughters who all went on to become Carmelite nuns. What an amazing couple. What an outstanding example.

Dear Louis and Zelie, please help me with my marriage.

How Tinnitus Prepared me for Carmel.

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I was recently sent a rather snooty message by a diocesan priest who used to be a Trappist monk. He was telling me that it was basically impossible for me to live a contemplative life in the context of a family home. He told me my children would not find my ‘requirement’ for silence much fun. He also told me it was impossible to be a contemplative without silence. I decided not to reply. But I do hope he reads this blog post.

The Lord began preparing me for contemplative life at home 5 and a half years ago – two weeks before Annabel was born – by giving me Tinnitus.

It was nothing other than torture. It was 9 months before I began to have even brief periods of not noticing the noises. At its worst it was louder than the phone ringing. In my left ear I had (and sometimes still have) a Morse-code style beeping. In my right ear there was a high pitched whistle. In my head there was a low pitched rumbling, and every so often I would get a really loud pure-tone that would drown out ALL other outside noise. So I would go completely deaf for a few seconds which was absolutely terrifying.

The worst part was that my brain was registering the noise as an outside threat, which meant that I would experience high levels of anxiety during the day and insomnia at night. I would lie awake at night listening to the noise. I had a new baby which meant that when I did manage to fall asleep, I would soon get woken up again by the noise of a crying baby. Then I would feed her, in the silence of the night, all alone in my prison of noise. Then I would take sleeping pills to knock me out. In the morning I would wake up, and the noise was still there. It never went away.

My husband couldn’t hear the noises going on inside my ears. No-one could hear it except me. It was so loud. I was so alone. I am not over dramatising this – tragically, earlier this year a 47 year old woman chose Euthanasia because she was unable to cope with her Tinnitus.

It was too much. I knew I couldn’t die because I had kids to raise, so just accepted that the rest of my life would be filled with a cacophony of beeping and whistling and rumbling.

As I began to accept and improve, my tinnitus therapist kept asking me if my tinnitus was holding me back in any way in my life. After careful consideration I told her “No, I can still still do everything, but… I would like to be able to pray.” She suggested mindfullness. Initially I found this to be life-changingly helpful. It did help me accept the intense suffering I was experiencing in a calm way, but it soon became apparent that there was a fair bit of *wacky* stuff that accompanied it. So I dropped it. But it did lead me into how my own faith viewed suffering. I kept remembering a line I must have read years before, something about “Joy in suffering”. It took me back to the saint who had claimed me for her own 11 years previously – St Teresa of Avila. I didn’t know why she was making an appearance in my life once more, but all I can tell you is that I felt her with me very strongly throughout that time of noise.

As time passed and my life continued in a strange sort of way. I accepted the noise. I cried because of the noise. I masked the noise with the TV and radio and found relief from the noise in my crying baby and my raucous 3 year old son. I couldn’t pray – or so I thought. I cursed myself for wasting all those quiet moments I had previously. I cursed God for giving me tinnitus. I cried and screamed at Him because I was at my wits end and I couldn’t think because of the noise. I told Him I didn’t understand – that there was no point to this. It wasn’t achieving anything. I begged Him to take it away. But He didn’t.

Usually I feel God very close to me, but at that time it was like He was withdrawn to a distance. I felt as if God had abandoned me, like He was enjoying torturing me. I wanted to hate Him, but I loved Him too much to hate Him. I thought about all this a lot.

The removal of silence from my life changed me. I had to concentrate on not becoming overwhelmed by the noise. I got very good at this. It’s amazing what you can do when you are pushed to the brink. As my anxiety began to decrease I used to experiment by sitting down and facing my noise – instead of trying to run away from it. I would actually sit and listen to it – develop a relationship with it almost. But in hindsight what I was actually doing was finding the deeper silence within myself, the silence of my soul. Teresa was guiding me, I could feel that, but I didn’t quite know how.

No-one on the outside could hear my noise. In fact here were only 2 people who could hear my noise – me and God. And when I would sit and listen to my noise, God would be there too. I began to realise that there must be purpose in all of this, but I didn’t know what that was. I allowed Him to sit with me while I explored my noise, and the place inside it was directing me to. He was in that place. My noise had driven me into the desert. Only me and Him were in that place. I was at the core of who I was in Him, and I found peace there. Not audible peace, but spiritual peace.

I began experimenting with this ‘place’, this desert. I began going there more often. I was not afraid there because He was there. Pretty soon I was finding myself in this place all the time throughout the day. It became totally natural to be in this place of extreme calm and inner silence, while I carried on with looking after the children – with the noise was still ringing in my ears.

As I began to recover from the tinnitus I did begin to experience times of real silence once more – something I thought would never happen again. During these times of real silence I would sit and just listen to the silence. Beautiful silence. I would let the silence surround me and go in me and through me and touch my heart in a way I didn’t really understand. It was if the peaceful desert my tinnitus had lead me to was now on the outside too. I felt the silence, and God was there.

It was another 5 years before I had any indication whatsoever of why God put me through that period of suffering. But in hindsight it is now obvious to me that there was no better preparation for the life of a secular Carmelite than this. To be a ‘contemplative in the world’ meant I would most likely be surrounded by noise all the time – which I am. I have the noise of the hoover, the children, my husband, the car etc. Are these bad noises? No! They are beautiful noises – they are the sounds of my primary vocation. “Doesn’t it distract you?” No! How can they distract me – they are the point of my focus! “But when do you get time to pray?” I am praying all the time. I can be here in my kitchen making the dinner, and at the same time I am in my desert with my Lord and Creator. And when I do get quiet periods during the day I sit and enjoy the silence – perhaps in a way you cannot understand if you have not had tinnitus. You could be a Trappist monk for 50 years, but I don’t think you really understand or appreciate silence until it has been force-ably taken away from you. Teresa will tell you that.

Last month during our Carmelite studies, I laughed out loud when I discovered that during her life Teresa had tinnitus too!

St Teresa of Avila, pray for us.

St Paul, pray for us.

St Louis de Montfort, pray for us.

Today I was received into Carmelite formation – and no, I did NOT just become a nun!

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Today I was received into Carmelite formation. Really – I couldn’t be happier! 🙂 It seems as if my whole life has lead me up to this point. Now I am part of a family where I will have the space and the resources to discover and develop a part of myself that has been screaming to get out for a very, very long time.

I have been asking people to pray for me on Facebook regarding this over the last few weeks and to my great amusement, there were quite  a large number of people who congratulated me on becoming a nun! This got even funnier when they realised I was married with 3 kids!

Let me explain…

In the Carmelite (ocds) order there are the First Order – the friars (who are active/contemplative), the Second Order – the nuns (who are cloistered) and the Third Order (or ‘Seculars’) – laypeople who continue to live in the world, and can be married or single, and diocesan priests. I am becoming a Third Order (secular) Carmelite.  The seculars are fully part of the Order, taking similar promises to friars and nuns but related to their lives as lay people.

The first part of my formation lasts 1-2 years. At the end of this time I will make my First Promise. Then there is a second period of formation lasting 4-5 years. At the end of this time I will make my Final (life long) Promise. After this I will become a fully fledged Carmelite.

The charism (or spiritual focus) of the Carmelite Order is contemplation. But a very important point is to understand that Carmelites understand contemplation and action to be complementary, not contradictory. This is a particularly important point to grasp because I am living the Carmelite charism within my vocation as a wife and a mother. The two actually fit together hand in hand beautifully, and is perfectly described in the famous quote for Teresa of Avila “God is found among the pots and pans.”

The Carmelite Order is considered by the Church to be under the special protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and has a strong Marian devotion. ‘Our Lady of Mount Carmel’ is the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelite Order.

We wear the Brown Scapular (which is basically a tiny habit!)

We say the Divine Office morning, evening and night prayer.

We follow the rule of St Albert.

Some famous Carmelite saints you may have heard of are Teresa of ÁvilaSaint Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Saint John of the Cross, St. Simon Stock and many more…

It is a way of life. A spirituality focused on the interior life – prayer from the heart, relationship with God.

I am really just scratching the surface here! And lets not forget I’m just a beginner! But I hope this goes some way to explaining what I am doing in my life now and the fact that even though I have just been received into formation, I have not just become a nun!

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Carmelite co-incidence? I don’t think so!

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Isn’t it funny when you begin seriously discerning your Carmelite vocation and you go on holiday, walk into a chemist and the chemists middle name is Carmel?!

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Or when an hour later you are at a farm and the farmer tells you that the big row of pine trees are are unique in this area because he had them all shipped in from Carmel in San Francisco?!

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And when you get home and a new ballet school opens up in the church hall where you are supposed to go for your first Carmelite meeting?!

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And when it happens to be Carmelite All Saint’s Day (Nov 14th) and you receive a surprise package in the post containing this: “Got this for you from the Carmel in Lisieux…”

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And then when it happens to be Carmelite All Soul’s Day (Nov 15th) and you get another surprise package (because you forgot you ordered it!) of the Divine Office morning and evening prayers.

I love co-incidences! I love the fact that I don’t believe any of these were co-incidences! I love being (almost) Carmelite!

Detachment, CFS and my route into Carmel.

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I have been having to let go of a few things recently. My 8 year old son has decided to stop calling me ‘Mummy’ and now calls me ‘Mum’ – He’s not my baby any more! My 10 month old has moved out of our room into her own room and my 4 year old is getting ready to start big school in September. Letting go is not easy.

It got to the point a few years back where I felt I had finally let go of everything and given it to God. And in my conscious mind I had. But the heart is full of secret chambers that hide deep, deep secrets. So deep that sometimes you are not even aware of them yourself.

In January this year the Lord was calling me to do something. I didn’t know what, and I was hesitating to give my ‘yes’ because I know what that means – He wants Everything. I had also recently just given birth to my third child and wasn’t sure I could commit to anything else. But eventually, one day when I was driving home from the school run I felt the prompt that now was the right time. So I said “OK, here you go – here’s my ‘yes’. I have no idea of what it is you are calling me to do but here is my ‘yes’ anyway – Jesus, I trust in you.”

Little did I know that this was a preparation for Carmel. The thing is, that when the Lord calls you into the desert with Him you go alone. I mean, you can take literally nothing with you. And it seems that in the deepest secret chambers of my heart I was holding onto something – security.

I got married 14 years ago aged 20. I went from living with my parents to living with my husband. I have never lived alone. I have always had someone to take care of me be it emotionally, financially or whatever. I have never been on my own with anything my entire adult life. My husband is my rock – he always has been. A week after I gave my ‘yes’ to God, my husband collapsed on the sofa with an unknown illness. By the next morning he couldn’t raise his head off of the pillow. It was terrifying, no-one knew what was wrong with him and he was getting worse. Blood test after blood test came back negative and at one point we even had the heart wrenching conversation “You know where all the life insurance documents are right?”

To cut a very long story short, after a month of searching we eventually got a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). There was relief that it was not life threatening. There was despair that there is no real cure. If you can imagine having run a marathon and having the flu and the worst hangover of your life – well that’s CFS. Every day without a break I would wake up to watch my husband suffering terribly knowing there was nothing I, or anyone else could do to help him. His courage and resolve throughout all this puts me to shame. He truly is the bravest man I know. The kids took it in their stride as kids do.

The hardest part for me is that my rock had been taken away from me. I was terrified and alone and had to hide my feelings not only from the kids but from my husband who had enough to deal with just getting through the day. There was not a day that went by for months and months that I would just find a place to be alone and just cry out of desperation and fear. I was alone in the dark with no-one to cling onto. “Why are you doing this to us?!” was all I could say to the Lord.

“Where are you hiding,
Beloved, having left me to moan?
Like the stag you fled
After wounding me;
I followed crying aloud, but you had gone.”

– St. John of the Cross

It began to dawn on me in prayer that there was something within me that was an issue, and the Lord was leading (a better word would be dragging) me through it. I was given the consolation of Our Lady reminding me that when I hold the Rosary, it is really her holding my hand. But things didn’t end there. The Lord also brought several ‘false rocks’ into my path that in varying ways seemed to offer me a perfect solution to the fear and despair I was experiencing. “Why are you doing this to me?!?!” These were some of the biggest tests I had ever had to face. Each time the Lord was testing me to see if I would rely solely on Him or not. He was testing me to see if I was ready to go into the desert with Him alone.

After much struggling and agonising, and being stripped down to my core, it seems that at 34 years old, I finally am ready!

My husband has improved so much since January and now is fairly normal at home. He has a good prognosis and has been told to expect to make a full recovery – in time. It could be a few years – we just don’t know. I the mean time he will remain at home and enjoy spending time with the baby. This does mean that because he cannot work we now have no income for the foreseeable future and I would ask you to pray about that for us. But quite frankly, I am at the point now where if we lose the house, we lose the house. So be it! It’s just a building and we can find another one if we have to. I am learning the true meaning of detachment – in every area of my life.

It’s been the hardest 8 months of my life. I’m bruised, but not broken. The main feeling I have is of incredible gratitude and relief that the Lord allowed me to go through this now, so I can learn to rely completely on Him and draw even closer to Him. I am beginning to learn the incredible beauty, purpose and value of suffering within the context of a relationship with Christ. He was amongst other things, preparing me to enter the desert that I now realise has always been my home – Carmel.

I hope this gives some insight into what has been going on for the last 8 months. I have not written about it before now because i had no way of articulating what on earth was happening. This is by no means the end – and there is of course much more to this story, but I’m afraid those things are to remain deep secret desert conversations between me and the ruler of my heart.

So now i ask you – What attachments are hiding in the secret depths of your heart? 

“…In the happiness of the night,
Secretly, unseen by anybody,
Looking at nothing else,
With no other light or guide
Save that which was burning in my heart.

This light guided me
More certain than the light of midday,
To where one awaited me
Whom I knew well
In a place where no one would appear…”

– St. John of the Cross

I’m becoming a Carmelite!

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I’m not going to go into the long and drawn out story of how i got to this point in my life, other than to say that I didn’t realise there was a name for what i experience, and that name can be condensed into one word – Carmel. For those who understand no explanation is necessary. For those who don’t, I’m afraid no explanation is possible. My heart has been in Carmel since i was 4 years old and it has taken my spirit 30 long painful wrenching years to catch up! But now it seems I can be whole again and it is time for me to take my first few steps into the home i knew was out there and have been desperately searching for my whole life.

This week i was enrolled with the brown scapular (to find out more about the brown scapular click here). Look at my big happy face! 

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It will take around 6 years in total before i can make my final profession as a secular carmelite and I would ask you now to pray for me as i start this incredibly exciting new part of my life! 

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That is all i will say for now other than if you want to know who made my beautiful brown scapular – it was my amazingly patient and kind friend Lynne and you can see more of her work here.

The closer one approaches to God, the simpler one becomes.”  ― Teresa of Ávila