Benedictines, Carmelites explore mystery of ‘election’

 Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

Cloistered monks and nuns in formation for the Benedictine and Discalced Carmelite orders had a special treat in July. They held a three-day, joint formation workshop at St. Joseph Abbey’s Retreat Center in Covington, celebrated Mass together and even visited Oak Alley Plantation.

Discalced Carmelite Friar, Father Lukasz Strzyz-Steinert, who teaches at the Pontifical Theological Faculty “Teresianum” in Rome, spoke on “St. Therese of Lisieux and the Biblical Paradigm of Election,” sharing the Carmelite saint’s thoughts and writings on being chosen for religious life.

“This is the first time we have had a joint conference together,” said Sister Edith Turpin, prioress of the Discalced Carmelites in Covington, expressing delight in the opportunity.

Of the 13 or so women associated with the Discalced Carmelites, there were novices, junior professed, newly professed and a candidate studying in Covington, plus several from Terre Haute, Indiana, said Sister Mary Joseph Nguyen, sub-prioress and novice mistress from Terre Haute. Benedictine monks, novices and postulants in formation from the Abbey rounded out the group.

“We love to meet our own sisters because we are a cloistered order, so to be together is very supportive,” Sister Mary Joseph Nguyen said. “Sharing is very good. You see a unity in our (Benedictines, Carmelites) ministries, although we express it differently.”

Benedictine Father Ephrem Arcement, master of juniors at St. Joseph Abbey, met Father Lukasz in 2018 while in Rome attending a Thomas Merton Symposium at Sant Anselmo. He was impressed with this young friar being on faculty at a prestigious institution in Rome and, through conversations with him, thought he would be perfect to give a presentation.

“It turned out quite well,” Father Ephrem said.

Extensive talk

Over several sessions, Father Lukasz related how the strong-willed St. Therese of Lisieux, during her short life, wrote extensively as a Carmelite struggling with being worthy of God’s love, joy (was it supposed to be constant?) and being elected as a contemplative religious.

“Her life story is a story of  a life of salvation, gratitude for everything that God has done,” said Father Lukasz.

St. Therese made the discovery that she was called by God to do her beloved’s will; perfection could only be achieved if she surrendered in gratitude and joy.

“It is his will,” St. Therese said. “He called who he wanted. God is God.”

Father Lukasz said God’s will was a painful mystery to St. Therese. Why did he call (elect) some and not others to be religious; why are some endowed with certain graces and not others? Father Lukasz said the novices present might ask themselves these questions during formation.

“In Carmelite life and Benedictine life, there is the baptism of God’s will,” Father Lukasz said. “The only thing we can do is accept it. There is no guarantee of A, B, C or D (happening),” he said. “Our spiritual life is our response and our doing. God called the people he wanted to call. For St. Therese, it is great joy, but also a painful mystery. Our lives are pre-determined in this way. Election means being ‘special,’ an election by God. Why others are rejected is a mystery.”

St. Therese reconciled her doubts by knowing that God loves everyone and offers salvation to all. The mystery of Christianity is acceptance and gratefulness for God’s mercy.

“We have to accept this in formation,” Father Lukasz said. “There’s only one solution – to thank God for his will, even if we can’t understand it.”

Once she put her faith in God’s mercy, his choosing and election, St. Therese was able to see her life through this lens and offer mercy to others, Father Lukasz said.

God created people, flowers

St. Therese realizes she must surrender to the differences, accept her reality and give joy to God for creating who she is. And, so it is with souls, Father Lukasz said. God created great souls comparable to the roses, yet he created smaller ones who need to be content to be daisies or violets.

If all flowers were the same, there would be no springtime beauty. All flowers are uniquely special because they were created by God out of love. It is the same with saints. Great sinners can receive graces from God and become great saints.

“God wanted to create great saints and even smaller ones, and the smaller ones must be content to be small,” St. Therese said. “It is God’s doing. … His will is not rejection (of one or the other).”

Father Lukasz said for St. Therese, the differences are a way to enhance beauty, “to give joy to God. The beauty of the field is the harmony of the different flowers. Beauty means everyone; it’s diversity.”

For St. Therese, “perfection consists in doing (God’s) will, in being what he wills us to be … to give joy for the differences,” of being elected, of being part of Jesus’ garden, his chosen people. She realized she was beautiful and special because she was chosen by God. Her election as a religious was confirmation.

“Therese knows that being elected means being loved by God,” Father Lukasz said.  “It is (through) this realization that she can dedicate herself to this true love that gives pleasure and joy.

“In the end, there’s only God’s love,” Father Lukasz said. “Only God’s love can save you, and you will not die. … Resurrection is the mystery of creation.”

What they learned

The religious in attendance left filled with insights.

Junior novice, Discalced Carmelite Sister Maria Joseph Nguyen of Terre Haute, said St. Therese is a great vocation example.

“In her little way of love and being, who she is, she is not afraid of being herself,” Sister Maria Joseph said. “More than ever now, I’ve gained the awareness that God has called me and loves me in all eternity, and there is already a place in God’s eternity for my life.”

Novice Alex Boucher, 29, from Mobile, Alabama, will soon be a Benedictine monk and was gratified to hear Father Lukasz relate St. Therese’s thoughts on how God cherishes everyone in their differences.

“It’s in looking at people’s lives,” Boucher said. “Why some people receive more blessings than other people; some people have an easier life than others. … It relates to how you can try to do something right, correctly and still fail. It is more of a mystery than a formula. It’s through God’s grace and by surrendering completely to God, but it’s terrifying.”

Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown said all individuals  have God’s will in them.

“He doesn’t impose on us but calls forth what is already in us. That’s where the joy comes from; it is inside of us already,” Abbot Justin said. “That is the mystery of the call. What we are doing all of our life is discovering who we are.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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